Runner running on a mountain at sunrise.
(Photo: Getty Images)

Mountain Running 101: Training for Hilly Races

A trail running champion explains how to train the strengths and skills you need to conquer mountain uphills and downhills

Runner running on a mountain at sunrise.
Max King

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Running in the mountains isn’t easy, but it doesn’t always have to be difficult either. It’s one of those disciplines that is both inspiring and intimidating. Running uphill can be very challenging, but once on top you’re treated to the best views, fresh air and an unmatched sense of accomplishment.

For the past few years the sport of trail running in general—and mountain running in particular—has been gaining popularity, with many traditional road runners beginning to enjoy the training and visceral elements the trails have to offer. But how do you get started? How should you train? If you’ve ever visited or lived in a mountain community like Bend, Ore., Boulder, Colo., or Asheville, N.C., you know what running up a mountain can involve.

But how can you get better? The training involved for a mountain race is like a bag of trail mix with a little bit of everything thrown in. Let’s get to it.

Going Up

Going uphill requires a balanced mix of power, anaerobic capacity and hiking. Yes, hiking.

Let’s begin by quelling the notion that we’re “running” up mountains. Most competitors are power hiking up and running down. All but probably three or four of the best men in the field at the U.S. Mountain Running Championships on July 25 2015 in Bend, Oregon were hiking at some point on the uphill sections. You just have to be OK with the fact that you’ll be hiking at some point on the steepest terrain of most mountain races. The best way to learn how to be OK with some hiking is to train for it and figure out when it’s actually faster to hike than run.

The main reason to incorporate hiking into your climbing is to keep your heart rate in check. It’s all about efficiency. Finding a sustainable speed to go uphill by swapping between a jog and a hike is the goal. To get a handle on what that sustainable pace means to you, practice transitioning between hiking and jogging on different hill grades and surfaces.

When you’re not forced into hiking the steepest sections of a mountain, being able to run as much (and as fast) as possible when you’re racing is also something that requires proper training. In mountain running, you’ll need both great aerobic capacity and good leg strength to get up those hills. Training should address both of those elements through long, slow climbs (e.g. sustainable 7-10 minute efforts) on easy running days, as well as some interval workouts on short, steep hills. The longer, sustainable climbing will improve your aerobic capacity in much the same way as your easy runs, but using a specific uphill running form. Interval work on the hills should be split into short intervals (30 seconds to 2 minutes in duration) to work on power and anaerobic capacity and longer VO2max intervals (2-5 minutes in duration).

Not all runners have access to steep hills, however, so there are some great tools you can use to help improve your climbing ability if you’re a flatlander. Obviously a treadmill comes to mind and is an easy way to supplement hill work. Another tool is a good strength training program focused on the posterior chain, specifically your calves, hamstrings and glutes. Dragging a tire around town is also a great tool for working on climbing technique, but be prepared for some strange looks from everyone other than your local CrossFitters!

Going Down

Now we’ll get into the nitty gritty of downhill running—an inevitable part of most mountain races and often overlooked in training. While we tend to focus on the uphills during training, the downhills during a race can suck up a lot of time and energy if you’re not properly prepared. And being prepared means practicing like any other skill set. Your current level of skill—and the race that you have chosen—will determine the type of terrain to start on. The goal is to be able to run downhill comfortably and relaxed.

A good place to start is with your running form. Leaning into the hill and keeping your feet under you will help keep you off your heels. Getting too far back on your heels won’t allow you to react to the terrain during a bad foot plant and will also put too much stress on your joints. Instead, stay forward on the balls of your feet and use that motion to slow you down. This will also help you react faster when you inevitably put your foot down on that loose rock.

To get better at running downhill you are going to have to get out of your comfort zone. Think of it as training. To get better you have to stress your body so it can adapt. Choose a downhill that you are comfortable running down at an easy pace, then speed up and do it several times. It’s similar in principle to running intervals. By practicing downhill intervals you’ll be able to learn where and how to place your feet. On each successive interval, you’ll be able to push faster while becoming more comfortable.

Just like uphills, not all downhills are created equal. Different techniques will be required depending on the circumstances of pitch, terrain, weather and layout of technical elements. Adapting to different terrain takes practice. Smooth terrain, like a road, requires good, fast turnover and keeping your feet underneath you. More technical terrain becomes an intricate dance with the trail—and as you become a better and more proficient “dancer” it’s a load of fun.

Running up and down hills requires strength to execute efficiently. The more core strength you have to balance yourself and react to changes in terrain on the downhill, the easier the dance will be and the more comfortable you’ll be at faster speeds. I highly recommend an effective regimen of core and strength training for any runner, but it’s incredibly valuable for a runner doing a lot of vertical gain in training. The great thing about mountain running, of course, is that it will help with that core strength—but it’s not a complete substitute. If possible, add in a few core-strengthening workouts each week to supplement your running.

Mountain running sounds like an intimidating proposition but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most mountain races tend to be shorter in distance, which suits trail runners seeking something a bit more challenging than a true beginner race but not quite as overwhelming as an ultra-distance event. The next time one pops up on the local race calendar, consider giving it a go—and if you think it’s too difficult because you’ll have to walk, just remember, I was walking at the national championships.

5 Tips for Mountain Running

  1. Strength training will help all runners, but especially those who are doing a lot of up and down running. Find a good regimen to incorporate into your training program.
  2. It’s not always about running. Work some hiking into your training to get more efficient at going uphill.
  3. Incorporate hill intervals, both uphill and downhill, into your training to become more proficient at both disciplines.
  4. On the downhills, keep your feet underneath you and stay on the balls of your feet while leaning your body slightly forward.
  5. No hill? No problem. Get creative. Treadmills and tires will do for uphill training. Rocky trails or any uneven terrain can help get you ready for technical downhills in a pinch.
From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Getty Images