How Bodybuilder Shaun Stafford Became A Himalayan Marathon Man

Altitude mask
(Image credit: Unknown)

Running 42.2km in one go is pretty tough no matter who you are and where you do it. Even if you’re a whippet-thin club runner tackling a flat road race in perfect weather, it’s still no simple feat. And if, say, you’re a 90kg bodybuilder attempting to run a full marathon in the highest mountain range on the planet, then it’s definitely not going to be an easy ride.

Shaun Stafford, bodybuilder, Optimum Nutrition ambassador and Men’s Fitness cover model, has transformed his training this year in an attempt to complete the Everest Marathon, raising money for Himalayan Children’s Charities in the process. Coach caught up with Stafford two weeks before he jetted off to Nepal to talk about the challenge of the race and how he changed his training to prepare for the marathon.

What is the Everest Marathon?

It’s the world’s highest marathon. It takes place at Everest Base Camp and goes up and down four mountains. So it’s not only no air and 26 miles, it’s up four mountains over really rocky terrain. It should be really interesting!

How are you feeling about the race?

OK! There are so many variables involved that it’s almost like you can’t prepare for all of them – if something’s going to get you it’s going to get you. And for me it’s not about setting records, it’s about taking part and hopefully completing it. I’m not exactly built for running, which is part of the fun.

What was your training like before you started preparing for the marathon?

Previously it would be predominantly weight training. I’d be in the gym lifting weights four or five times a week with the focus on getting bigger, getting leaner. My sessions would be fairly short, from 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, and doing a body part a day – standard bodybuilding training. Any cardio would be fairly low-intensity to try and strip that bit more body fat or keep a base level of fitness.

And how has it changed for the race?

I’ve actually tried to drop a bit of muscle mass, because looking like a bodybuilder and running around Everest wouldn’t be the best idea. My body wouldn’t be able to cope. My weight training has dropped to two sessions a week and I’ve filled in the gaps with a fair bit of running. I started off trying to do two runs a week. I started on 1st January with a 10K, then I tried to do a shorter run in the week and a longer run on the weekend, and build it up week on week.

What has been your longest run?

I was planning on doing a 22 [miles], but I only managed 19, which I did about six weeks ago. When I was running the Manchester marathon I blew out my hip and since then I’ve had to cut back on running – I’ve only really got back into it the last week.

My next question was going to be have you had any injury problems? Obviously yes – so how have you coped with them?

I thought my body would adapt to the running and my weight would come down quicker than it has, but it’s actually stayed pretty big, despite cutting the weights down and increasing the cardio. And I think the repetitive impact of all the miles – at the peak I was doing 50-55km a week – has led to a little dysfunction in my hips and lower back, which has meant I had to take a step back.

Have you managed to fix the issue then?

Yeah, I’ve basically tried every available rehabilitation and recovery tool – I’ve had cryotherapy, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, osteo, physio. Anything you can think of, I’ve tried it to get running again, and fingers crossed it’s done the job.

Have you trained at altitude?

I work at a gym in the City, and we have an altitude chamber in there, so the shorter runs in the week have all been done in that. That’s a real bonus. At the moment I’m also sleeping in an altitude tent set to 4,000m and there will be a two-week trek from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp which will help me acclimatise.

Have you enjoyed changing up your training routine?

Yeah, it’s been a really interesting experience. I’ve been physique training and bodybuilding for seven or eight years, so it’s nice to have a bit of a break and try something a bit different.

Do you think people should vary their training a bit more in general?

One hundred percent. It depends on what you want to get out of your fitness experience, but I think the more well-rounded you are the more chance of longevity you have. If you focus on a niche you become quite one-dimensional. The guys who will be fitter for longer periods are masters of all trades. They can go for a 10K, do some light gymnastic stuff and pick up some weights. Having a base of all-round fitness is brilliant.

What’s been the hardest part of changing your training?

There have been two things from a mental point of view. With the training, I was doing relatively short, intense workouts of an hour, giving it everything, then getting out and recovering, eating and going back to normal. Whereas some of these longer runs I’ve been doing have been three, three-and-a-half hours long, and it’s absolutely brutal – exhausting mentally and physically. That’s been eye-opening.

Something that’s also been hard is actively take a step back from focusing on physique. Your physique takes a hit, you don’t look like you normally do and mentally that can be hard to let go of. I know it’s a short-term thing and once I’ve done the marathon I’ll go back to eating a different way and training in a way I’ve always enjoyed, and my body will re-adapt. But when you look in a mirror… actually it’s worse when you catch up with friends who haven’t seen you in a while and they’re like, “mate, you’re half the size!” But knowing I’m going to be doing something not a lot of people have done and raising a lot of money for a really good charity definitely makes it all worth it.

How has your nutrition changed?

The nutrition for a bodybuilder is very different from an endurance event – the role and impact of carbohydrates in an endurance event is really key. Previously I was on a low-carb diet and now I’m having 400-500g of carbs a day just to get through the volume of training that comes with the running.

The diet is completely different – there’s a hell of a lot more carbs, and a hell of a lot more food. Because if you’re in the gym doing a workout and you’re going really hard you’ll burn 500-600 calories, whereas for me now that’s a short run. If I go on a long run it can be 2,500 calories. The amount of food you have to eat and the amount of carbohydrate is… well, it’s a lot!

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.