Summertime means the mountains are open for runners and hikers, and the majority of the high alpine races are during this time of year. However, many runners, especially city slickers, don’t have equivalent climbs where they can train. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for the more mountainous races no matter where you live.
Training needs to be specific to whatever event you want to race. If it’s a mountain or very hilly trail race, then training needs to include a lot of vertical movement, both climbing and descending (described in combination as “vert” in this article). Merely changing your perspective from mileage targets to targets for vertical gain and descent can make a huge difference.
When focusing on vert, you can start measuring this key metric more closely and identify what changes are needed in your training runs to get in enough climbing for your target races. Setting targets will make you more likely to get enough climbing in. For most mountain ultras, I generally recommend trying to average around 1,500-2,000 feet of vertical gain per day for many weeks before the target event, but this depends on individual circumstances. Much of this vert should be during a weekly longer run or occasional back-to-back runs.
How To Average Lots Of Vert When You Don’t Have Any Mountains Locally
Treadmills. Even if you don’t like them, you can quickly accumulate a lot of vert on standard treadmills, which usually go up to a 15% gradient. A great way to keep runs varied and interesting is to run outside first, even if that part of the run is completely f lat, then spend a few miles power-hiking on the treadmill. Three miles at 15% will involve around a 2,500-foot climb, making it easier to incorporate more vert with minimal time on the treadmill. As you progress, you can include a weight vest to increase your strength.
Stairs. As with the treadmill, tall buildings can be great for really steep, tough climbs. You can also do some flatter running outside in advance. Very helpfully, they also allow for downhills, but the boredom factor tends to be worse than for treadmills. Turning it into a game really makes the time go by more quickly. For example, aim to get dead-even splits for uphill reps (harder than it sounds) or try to beat your previous times to certain f loors or to the top.
Parking garages. The slopes in garages won’t generally offer as much vert as the two options above, but they can be incorporated in the same way.
Hill reps. Since even flat cities usually have tiny hills or bridges, it’s still feasible to run hill reps and add up the vert that way. To avoid too much repetition, I recommend starting a run with some reps, then running elsewhere and finishing with more reps. You can combine this with any of the other methods above to help make that vert add up.
Uphill Versus Downhill Vert
Getting in enough uphill training is usually feasible in even the f lattest of locations with the options mentioned above. However, a limiting factor when getting near the end of mountain races is that the downhill pounding adds up to so much muscle fatigue and soreness that it’s difficult to run even the f latter, easy sections.
For every up, there’s also a down for the training options mentioned above, except the treadmill. If treadmills make up the bulk of your climbing, then it’s also important to strengthen the legs and joints for downhills. I mentioned several options for this in my previous column in the May/June 2015 edition of UltraRunning.
Many runners get very caught up in their mileage targets, but for mountain races the more relevant stat is the amount of vert, both uphill and downhill. Even the fastest marathoners can’t run well in the mountains without practicing specific hill training. However, the factor that’s most difficult to replicate is technical trail running. Stairs help with this since they require fast feet and accurate placement on the downhills, but any chance to run technical trails should be taken if your target race will involve much of this type of terrain.