For trail and ultrarunners living in the northern hemisphere and still in the throes of winter, it may be challenging, if not impossible, to run on hilly terrain. There are wide variations from one geographical area to another, but many athletes are faced with limited terrain choices this time of year. Trails may be buried under feet of snow while other regions are moving between muddy conditions and sections of ice depending on recent weather and altitude. If your target(s) for the season include mountainous events and you are struggling to get onto hilly terrain, it can be frustrating. You’re not alone. The good news is this problem has been solved by many runners in past seasons and there are a good number of tools that can be deployed to help maintain mountain running strength and skills. Consider the following suggestions if you would like to be reasonably prepared to compete in events that will demand plenty of elevation change.
Let’s begin with the most basic, which is also the most important asset: fitness. The better overall physical conditioning you have, the better you will fare come race day. With regular, periodized training, even if the terrain has not closely matched that of your event, you will be best prepared if you’re strong and more acclimatized to uphill and downhill grades. Consistent cardiovascular training increases blood plasma volume which helps maintain a more normal core temperature. It also develops energy pathways for utilizing oxygen more effectively (think mitochondria and capillary density increases). During running sessions, if nutritional strategies that will be used on race day are practiced regularly, your gut permeability and substrate utilization will also expand dramatically. Therefore, do all you can to keep your training volume consistent throughout the winter; this is by far the most valuable part of being ready for a mountainous event when the next season arrives.
Beyond the basics of consistent training, creativity and commitment to event demands should be the second priority. Probably the most obvious, and in some circles the most disliked implement, is a treadmill. While we all love fresh air and single track for miles, a treadmill is a great tool to use intermittently to continue developing uphill abilities. Because uphill running demands more oxygen compared to the same relative intensity as running on flat terrain, completing interval workouts using an elevated incline on the treadmill will help you reap greater cardiovascular gains. Ground impact forces also decrease when running uphill. Hence, the treadmill can be a secret weapon for allowing interval workouts to be more impactful and it can also decrease the likelihood of incurring an injury. You’ll also spend less time layering up (and then laundering all those layers) by running indoors compared to a cold outdoor session.
Treadmill running can address continued exposure to inclines, but don’t overlook the fact that what goes up, usually goes down. Most treadmills offer declines of 5% or less, while mountainous trail races and ultramarathons will deliver downhill grades up to 30% or even steeper in some cases. How do we prepare the body for the descents of a hilly event if we can’t run downhill? Downhill running places a unique and high demand on the musculoskeletal system so it’s essential to integrate activities that will prepare runners for this aspect whenever possible.
In the absence of opportunities to run downhill, using strength training exercises that mimic the demands of descending can be effective. Eccentric muscle contractions, which is when muscles or muscle groups are in an extended position while simultaneously under tension, occur to a much higher degree when running downhill. Because a little goes a long way when developing eccentric strength, completing a few strength exercises about twice weekly can prepare the body for actual downhill running. Ideas for developing eccentric strength include lunges and lunge variations (Bulgarian split squats are an especially effective lunge variation.) Also, depth jumps from a box, single leg skater squats, and pistol squats are good choices for eccentric muscle movements. Keep in mind that because these exercises are so effective, they are also very demanding. Begin introducing these exercises gradually and cautiously. Even with a conservative approach, some delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can occur. Be sure to begin any strength session well-fueled and hydrated, warm up intentionally before hard or heavy exercises, and take care to give yourself plenty of recovery after an eccentric strength session.
Finally, if you live in an area in which more opportunities for elevation change increases as snow levels move up and muddy trails begin to dry out, introduce elevation changes steadily but gradually. A rule of thumb is to add no more than about 30% elevation change increase from week to week below 10,000 feet of weekly total elevation gain, then not more than about 20% thereafter. This consistent exposure to running uphill and downhill should allow your body to adapt as you slowly expose it to additional stress in the form of elevation fluctuations. Always tune in to the cues your body is sending you. If you are noticing excessive muscle soreness, or slight hints of injury, especially in the lower legs and ankles, back down the weekly elevation changes for one or two weeks until you feel healthy and injury free. Note that the dose response rate for dedicated/hard downhill running is low, you can do just 2–3 sessions that include hard downhill running efforts per month to create very significant physiological adaptations.
While there is no single correct formula for mountain race preparation for athletes who have little or no access to outdoor hills and mountains in the winter, there are options for being reasonably prepared. Focus primarily on overall fitness and understand the demands of your event. As it gets closer, within two to three months ahead of race day, design your training more specifically to those demands without making any major changes all at once. Introduce new stimuli gradually and with the big picture in mind. Usually a simple approach is best while using the tools you have at hand can be a great advantage. Be thoughtful and diligent with your training as we eagerly await spring’s arrival.