Running in the mountains is hard. I’m certainly not going to say it’s harder than other running, but it needs to be treated differently. Many experienced runners get a sharp shock when they first race in the mountains.
I was quite an experienced ultra runner myself before moving to Chamonix three years ago. It took quite a while for me to adjust my running to suit the mountains, and even now I won’t claim it is any where near perfect.
I have now gathered some great mountain experience and I would like to share some of the main points that need to be considered if you want to be prepared for your first mountain experience or you want to improve.
- Walk up hills. Now this is one of the biggest sticking points for flatlanders. There is something in many of us runner's brains, that thinks that walking means we have failed. Some ascents will be runnable, but depending on your state, the gradient, and the length of the climb, many alpine ascents should be walked. Walking can be a lot more economical than a run, and when it is very steep and long it can actually be quicker. My fastest time up the Vertical KM here in Chamonix was done when I walked around 60% of the course. There is no shame in walking. The best in the world will walk when the going gets tough.
- Practice power hiking! The first point will only be effective if you have a fast power hike. This is something that should be practised. Some people hike incredibly fast and will take so much time out of someone who labours away running every hill. Practise with short steps. This is when poles are at their most valuable if you use them. It’s all about getting a fast rhythm going which the tapping of the poles can certainly help. If you don’t use poles, then push your hands against your thighs on the steep sections to utilise you upper body power. Ideally if you have access to a steep hill of at least five minutes, then do hill reps, but hike the whole thing. Try to improve your times.
- Experiment with poles. Poles, like walking are treated with disgust by many. I won’t get into that, but if used correctly they can really help some people. They can help set a rhythm, add stability, help utilise your upper body during ascents and even help you if you are injured (I may not have finished the Spine without mine!). The major downside for me personally, is that it creates extra faff as your hands are always full which is frustrating. It is a very personal thing. Just give them a go. If you’re not keen, then at least you know.
- Do not compare speed in the mountains to flatter runs. This may sound really obvious and easy, but it isn’t always. Roughly speaking, my time spent running is the same, but the distance covered is at the best, around half what I used to cover. So, initially this was difficult to understand. I knew it was hilly, but to go so much slower! The best way to measure your training is by time not distance. Height gain also adds another useful dimension.
- Run all the flatter more runnable sections. If you are trying to go as fast as you can, then whenever the gradients ease, run. Many times I have found myself walking along a very runnable section of trail wasting time, dreaming of some unobtainable food probably! Stay focused on economical pacing and adjust accordingly. For me, one of the great things of mountain running, is that there are lots of changes in style and speed. The variety keeps things interesting. From running ups to walking ups, to dancing down the descents to racing along the flats, things are constantly changing, and the skill is knowing when to do what.
- Train for the descents. If you don’t have access to huge, steep descents, then you will probably want a new set of quads after your first big mountain run. When you descend for an hour, it can feel great, liberating and will take you back to your childhood, but the forces this is putting on your untrained quads is extreme and either later in the day or, disguised as DOMS, a few days later, you will be crippled with an intense soreness. If you don’t live in the mountains, then find you local biggest hill and do sprints repeats DOWN it. Stay in control though as you will be no use with a sprained ankle!
- Practice technical running. You could be the fastest runner up and down mountains, but if you can’t effortlessly cruise over the difficult terrain the mountains throw at you, you will never win. When you have a decent level of confidence on the technical terrain, you will move faster, have more fun and will be less prone to injury. To improve you need to find a hill that you hate to run down. Tree roots, steep, rocks, loose rocks, wet, slippery and super twisty is all good. Again, take short, fast steps.
- Altitude. Here is a difficult one if you live in the UK or are not to far from sea level with no real easy access to the higher altitudes. Of course, not all mountains are high enough to have any real impact on your performance, but as soon as courses climb above 2500 metres, many people will start feeling the effects. The interesting thing is that some people just seem to cope much better than others, and that is not fitness related! What can be done about this? Well, if you have no access to higher terrain, then just be aware of the higher parts of races, and when you get there don’t fight it. Your performance will drop and things will become much more laboured. It’s fine, just keep moving and when you descend you will recover. If you push harder then you might well get into trouble.
Moving fast through the mountains is an incredible experience, and like anything, the better you get the more fun! Most people are hooked once they begin.
Remember that the mountains are the boss, so always have a great respect and always be prepared as things can change very quickly.
Written by Neil Bryant who lives in Chamonix, France. Neil has much experience in big mountain races and anything else ultra. He also is a coach training clients online all over the world. To find out more click here