In the broadest context mountain running means moving quickly over mountainous terrain. To distinguish it from mountaineering, mountain running is movement at a higher speed and with less weight and equipment, over terrain that is usually less technical. Mountain running includes everything from running buffed trails through the hills of California to navigating technical, high-speed scrambling linkups in the mountains outside of Chamonix. Further, it encompasses efforts from vertical kilometer (VK) races to mountainous 100-milers and beyond. Despite the breadth of disciplines that fall into this category, training for all mountain running is incredibly similar. The mountain runner will need to focus their training on a relatively small group of attributes to maximize their potential for a given effort.
When it comes to examining the best training protocols and practices for mountain running, it may be easiest to start at one extreme. Kilian Jornet is one of the greatest mountain runners of all time. With three wins at UTMB (the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc), speed records on the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and Mount Everest, and a world record in the VK, he possesses a range that is unparalleled. Let’s examine the attributes that enable Kilian’s incredible performance:
- Kilian has a high aerobic capacity, as evidenced by a high Aerobic Threshold (AeT) heart rate and high AeT pace. Therefore, he can sustain a high level of work for efforts lasting over an hour.
- Kilian has great muscular endurance, giving him high fatigue resistance and allowing him to maintain a relatively high pace in his races.
- Kilian is well fat adapted and can fuel long efforts by utilizing fat stores.
- Kilian has excellent running economy and expends less energy, relative to other runners, running at the same speed.
- Kilian has strong bones, connective tissue, and recoverability and can execute extraordinary training volumes. (We recommend that you not try to emulate him in his training volume.)
- Kilian’s mental strength gives him a high pain tolerance and the ability to endure suffering better than most.
- Kilian’s central nervous system fatigue resistance.
While Kilian is genetically gifted, perhaps more importantly his athletic ability has been shaped through epigenetics—that is, built through a lifetime of proper training. Kilian is an extreme example of what is possible with the right parents and three decades of endurance training. He’s an inspiration, but we don’t recommend trying to emulate his feats unless you have comparable gifts and a 30-year training background. We at Uphill Athlete were fortunate to have the opportunity to work closely with Kilian during the writing of our book Training for the Uphill Athlete. In it, we lay out the principles that Kilian and many other successful mountain athletes use to improve their performance, with the goal of helping mountain athletes develop these same attributes.
Simply put, the aim of training for mountain running is to improve your ability to run faster, farther than you can currently. Running faster means either increasing your stride length, increasing your stride rate, or optimizing a combination of the two. Running faster, farther means increasing your endurance so your stride length and/or rate do not decrease as much.
Increasing your stride length, or the distance you travel in the air with each stride, is dependent on the power you push off with. This leg power has its roots in leg strength.
Increasing your fatigue resistance, or the endurance required to maintain that long stride and quicker cadence for longer durations, relies completely on the aerobic metabolism in the working muscles.
It’s really that simple. Do these two things well and you will be a better mountain runner. The rest of this article digs into these two areas in greater detail.
UPHILL ATHLETE TRAINING GROUP
Endurance, Speed, Economy
Running well involves three things: Endurance, Speed and Economy. To say it another way, Running well is dependent on:
- optimizing your bodies’ metabolism for endurance,
- strengthening your body for speed, and
- running with good form.
Endurance, in a sport like running, is the ability to maintain a relatively high percentage of maximum speed for a long time. The muscle contractions that propel an athlete take energy. That energy is provided via a process known as metabolism. Metabolism takes place in the muscle cells. The body utilizes stored energy reserves, in the form of fat and muscular or liver glycogen, to generate energy. Simply put, endurance is a function of the metabolism’s ability to deliver energy to the muscle cells at a high rate and for a long time.
Speed in running relies heavily on power. Power is the rate at which muscles can generate force and it is, in turn, largely determined by strength—the force the body can exert through muscular contractions. Strength then depends on the number of muscle fibers the body can recruit to perform an action. When examined closely, running events are a series of thousands of one-legged hops. Athletes with greater power will be able to propel themselves farther with each hop. Since mountain running events last more than a few seconds, maximum power alone does not determine performance. Performance also depends on endurance and the rates at which muscles fatigue and power declines.
An underappreciated factor that plays a huge role in both speed and endurance is movement economy. That’s the amount of that metabolically produced energy it takes to propel an athlete at a certain speed. An athlete with relatively less power but more economy can outperform an athlete with relatively greater power but worse economy. More economy translates directly into greater speed and endurance.
As stated above, endurance is a metabolic effect. The energy fueling all efforts lasting more than a few seconds is generated through two metabolic pathways: aerobic and anaerobic. The aerobic pathway takes place within the mitochondria of the cell, is sustainable for hours at a time, and produces no nasty by-products, but it has a lower rate of energy production so is useful only for lower-intensity exercise. Both fat and glycogen (stored carbs) can fuel the aerobic pathway. The anaerobic pathway can produce energy faster, meaning it can fuel higher-intensity exercise. But this faster rate of energy production comes at the expense of some by-products that will eventually force the athlete to slow down. Another drawback of the anaerobic pathway is that it can only utilize glycogen for energy production. As we’ll get to shortly, glycogen stores, either stored in the liver or in the muscles, are quite limited. We humans are metabolically flexible, so during exercise our muscles use a combination of the aerobic and anaerobic pathways, with the percentage provided by each being a function of the intensity and training status of the athlete. The higher the intensity, the more energy the anaerobic pathway will have to provide.
VO2 max is less important than an Aerobic Base. How to improve V02 max has become the mainstream view of fitness. But endurance, and endurance training, are not affected by V02 max, and certainly not driven by these concepts. The reason is simple, in mountain running, we rarely engage in maximal or even near-maximal effort.
- The Aerobic Threshold (AeT) is the intensity at which the energy contribution from the aerobic pathway drops below 50 percent of the total energy for exercise. It’s an intensity that can be sustained for hours. The marathon is an event that is competed at or very close to an athlete’s AeT. For the world’s best that means a 4:30/mile pace! It is also one of the most trainable qualities for us humans.
- The Anaerobic Threshold (AnT) is the maximum intensity sustainable for 30 minutes in the case of a novice athlete, or one hour for an elite athlete. It goes by a few different names: Lactate Threshold is quite common, and Maximum Lactate Steady State is a great descriptor but also a mouthful.
- Aerobic Deficiency is where an athlete’s aerobic system is underdeveloped, either from leading a sedentary life or from engaging in too much high-intensity training. We measure it by calculating the gap between an athlete’s AeT and AnT heart rate or speed. When that gap exceeds 10 percent, the athlete is aerobically deficient. Here is a post describing what too much high-intensity training does to your aerobic base.
TRAINING ENDURANCE IS TRAINING METABOLIC PATHWAYS
Each of these two metabolic pathways requires its own training stimulus. The catch is that training one pathway comes at the degradation of the other. The most common example is training at high intensity (mainly using the anaerobic pathway), which reduces the muscles’ ability to produce energy via the aerobic pathway. Too much of this leads to aerobic deficiency. In the most affected athletes, the aerobic system is so detuned it’s unable to fuel exercise much above a walking pace. On the other hand, the most well-trained endurance runners can maintain a sub-five-minutes-per-mile pace for over an hour using primarily the aerobic energy production system. For these athletes the difference between their AeT and AnT heart rates is often less than 15 beats per minute. As a consequence, their speed and perceived exertion at AeT (the top of what we term Zone 2) is going to be only slightly less than that at AnT (the top of Zone 3). For them, training at AeT is almost as stressful as Zone 3 training, and hence the use of Zone 2 must be limited.
Raising the AeT heart rate and pace should be the goal for all endurance athletes seeking improved performance, especially for those who are running events lasting more than an hour. It takes patience to do this: an athlete must engage in training below AeT—done most effectively in Zone 2—for hundreds of hours to achieve major improvement. Among other things, aerobic training has several benefits. It increases the mitochondrial and capillary density in the working muscles, allowing the aerobic metabolic pathway to produce more energy, faster, which supports a higher work rate (speed in the case of the runner). However, the aerobic system detrains quickly, and athletes will need to engage in a minimum of four days of aerobic training per week to see improvements. Aerobic training only on the weekend is not enough. Because increasing the strength of the anaerobic pathway often comes at the degradation of the aerobic system, athletes looking to increase their aerobic system’s output (AeT) must limit high-intensity training. For more information, listen to the Uphill Athlete Podcast: “All About Aerobic Base.”
Establishing Your Aerobic Threshold and Anaerobic Threshold
From the above arguments, it should now be apparent that determining your AeT and AnT will give you valuable insight into your body’s metabolic response to different training intensities. Why’s that important? This information will allow you to establish training intensity zones, which in turn will enable you to effectively modulate and target training sessions. It is hard to get to an end goal if you don’t know where you are starting from.
For a complete discussion of the various methods available for establishing these baseline values, read this article: Aerobic Threshold Self-Assessment.
Training for Speed
Training for speed in endurance running, especially ultra-endurance running, is not the same as training for speed like a sprinter trains for speed. The long-distance runner is not concerned with maximum sprint speed. However, you can make use of some of the tools that sprinters use to help you develop a more powerful push-off. But you will also need to introduce some additional tools to develop the fatigue resistance necessary for endurance events. Because the mountain runner is primarily concerned with maintaining a relatively high sub-max speed for a long time, the main benefit of speed or power training for the distance runner is an increased stride length. This is where the faster part of the “faster for farther” goal comes in. That increased stride length is a function of leg power, which in turn is a function of leg strength. So it makes sense to start this discussion by talking about strength.
GENERAL STRENGTH AND CORE STRENGTH
We can divide the strength needed for endurance locomotion into two broad categories: general strength and specific strength. As the name implies, general strength is not sport specific, meaning that it may bear little or even no similarity to the movement, speed, or range of motion performed in the sport for which an athlete is training. Many of the traditional weight-lifting exercises, like the squat or deadlift, are good examples of general strength for a runner. Analogous to the aerobic base, general strength acts as a base for further training, in support of the sport-specific strength that directly impacts the athlete’s performance. General strength can help prevent overuse injuries related to improper movement, which may be triggered by strength imbalances or weaknesses. For novices, and especially for any older athletes or those suffering from or wanting to prevent overuse injuries, we recommend including general strength in your program.
Core strength, often forgotten, plays a critically supportive role in running. It serves this function by stabilizing the pelvis, spine, and shoulders so that the arms and legs can perform their propulsive functions most effectively. The stability of the pelvis is especially critical because it supports the bulk of the body weight, provides the anchoring for the legs, and provides the base of support for the spine. Many running injuries can be traced to weakness or imbalances in the core muscles, which attach to the pelvis. However, because of the general nature of core strength training, it is often overlooked by endurance athletes as unimportant. We caution against underestimating its usefulness. The core muscles are mainly made up of slow twitch (ST) fibers. This imbues them naturally with a lot of endurance, but typically not so much strength. Increasing their strength even a little can make a big difference for most athletes. In running, an effective arm swing produces a slight counterrotation of the shoulders relative to the hips, causing a little twist along the spine. If the core is not able to transfer this energy effectively from the upper body to the lower body, there will be a loss of running power.
SPORT SPECIFIC STRENGTH/POWER
When we speak of sport-specific strength we are really concerned with the power an athlete can develop in their propulsive movements. Power is the rate or speed at which force can be applied. A very strong athlete may not be very powerful if his or her movements are slow. However, and counterintuitively, a very powerful athlete may not be the strongest. This is why general strength training is useful only up to a point for improving an athlete’s performance. An athlete can build an enormous amount of muscle bulk and general strength, but if the brain isn’t trained to recruit those fibers in a sport-specific, coordinated, powerful movement pattern, that strength will not lead to improved athletic performance. This is the difference between gym-strong and sport-strong. Training specific strength and power is done using exercises that mimic quite closely (exactly, in some cases) the propulsive movements of the sport but with added resistance.
A classic workout of this type is the 30/30, which you can read about here: 30/30 Interval Training and the Need for Speed.
While one may think that this type of strength/power training is exclusively relevant to sprinting, it actually has a direct bearing on an endurance athlete’s performance at every distance. In mountain running events that last many minutes (VK) to many hours, this power increase manifests itself in longer strides. When an athlete is taking hundreds of thousands of strides, even a small increase in stride length will result in a significant performance gain. Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic: Say one stride (two foot strikes) is 2 meters. Say an athlete’s race is 100K. An athlete will take 50,000 strides. If the athlete increases their stride length by 2 centimeters (0.02 m), that’s 50,000 strides that are 0.02 meters longer. This puts the more powerful version of the same athlete 1,000 meters—and potentially many minutes—ahead of the less powerful version.
One of the most effective ways for the mountain runner to develop power is hill sprints. Training for power requires a mind shift for most endurance athletes, as they are used to continuous sub-max exercise providing the training stimulus. Power training requires repetitions of very short duration (8 to 10 seconds) at the maximum intensity an athlete can produce, broken up by periods of recovery (as long as 3 minutes). Utilize a hill that is at least 20 percent in grade with good footing. Alternatively, steep stairs taken two or more at a time work very well for this exercise. After a good warm-up, start with 6 to 8 repetitions with a 2-to-3-minute rest in between. Many endurance athletes struggle to adhere to the rest intervals, but these are critical to allow you to generate maximum power on each repetition. The workout is finished when you can no longer reach the same distance that you hit on the first few. If these feel easy, as they often do when an athlete has not trained for power, that means you will see good gains from power training. As you get more powerful, these will become increasingly fatiguing, often leaving your legs wobbly.
For a more complete discussion of hill sprints, see pages 179–183 of Training for the Uphill Athlete.
Muscular Endurance: Another Form of Sport-Specific Strength
Now we come to the endurance part of the story. It’s fine to think about increasing an athlete’s stride length, but what if their stride length gets shorter the longer they run as they begin to tire? All that power training will have been a waste, right? Not if we can improve those same muscles’ fatigue resistance. This is where muscular endurance training fits into the training toolbox. Muscular endurance is another form of sport-specific strength training.
Muscular endurance can be defined as the ability to maintain a high percentage of one’s maximal strength for many repetitions of the propelling movement. Most importantly for endurance athletes, muscular endurance is the main determinant of an athlete’s maximum sustainable speed in efforts lasting longer than a few minutes. The goal of muscular endurance training is to increase the aerobic capacity of the muscle fibers that are at your current endurance limit. Those are the highest force fibers that your brain recruits to produce the desired speed. These fibers are not well endowed (yet) with endurance, and they are the first to fatigue, causing you to slow down. For long-distance athletes (those participating in events longer than two hours), these are going to be Zone 3 fibers; for shorter-distance athletes, these will be Zone 4 fibers. There are several ways to increase muscular endurance.
The most traditional way to improve muscular endurance is through unweighted, high-intensity (Zones 3 and 4) efforts. For a Zone 3 workout, athletes engage in either a single continuous effort or multiple efforts separated by short rest intervals (2 to 4 minutes), such that the total time in Zone 3 is between 30 and 60 minutes. Effective Zone 4 work involves the use of work bouts of 3 to 8 minutes with a total work time of between 16 and 24 minutes. Rest intervals are about the same as those in Zone 3 workouts. In both cases, well-trained athletes are able to handle a higher overall volume and longer-duration work periods at higher intensity than novice athletes. These intervals should be executed on a grade similar to what the athlete will encounter during a race. For example, an athlete training for a steep race should do interval work on a steep uphill. The muscles needed for steep uphill locomotion are different from those utilized on the flats. Athletes new to high-intensity work should start with Zone 3 workouts and slowly incorporate Zone 4 work, due to their higher strain on soft tissues. This traditional method of improving the muscular endurance of the locomotive muscles also provides a large training stimulus to the cardiovascular system. Consequently, these workouts impose a higher global fatigue load than the following type discussed here.
Although somewhat less specific, an alternative to unweighted intervals is local muscular endurance work that targets the primary locomotive muscle groups. Two methods we have used with great success are high-repetition muscular endurance work in the gym and weighted work on a steep incline, either on a steep hill, stairs, or a StairMaster-type machine. For the latter, the goal is for local muscular fatigue in the propelling muscles to be the limiting factor when it comes to your speed, not your cardiovascular systems. Even at an extremely high perceived exertion, your heart and respiration rates will be lower than they would be at a similar perceived exertion unweighted and on flat terrain. The articles linked to above explain in detail how to conduct these workouts.
The most brute-force way to increase muscular endurance—and the most traditional approach in the mountain running community—is through a high volume of running on mountainous terrain. This is the most globally taxing, injury-risking, and time-intensive method. While studies have shown that athletes who run the most perform the best (partially because this style of training will also train the aerobic system and spark improvements in running economy), this high-volume, high-vertical training will need to be carefully balanced if you also plan to include any of the other muscular endurance training methods; otherwise, overtraining and/or injury can result.
While strength is important, an athlete’s speed is a function of both strength and economy. Economy is the amount of energy a body uses to run at a certain speed. Several studies have confirmed that among runners of similar speeds and similar max VO2s, differences in running economy explain as much as 65 percent of the differences in their race times. This means that a less aerobically fit runner might be faster than a fitter but less economical runner. Running economy is affected by many factors. Compare the video footage of an elite runner to that of an untrained runner and the differences are clear. Unnecessary bobbing, torso torque, and inefficient leg stride all affect efficiency, as does excess body, shoe, and clothing mass. Stride length is one of the clearest indicators of running economy. Runners who are more economical travel farther per stride than less economical runners. A runner can be efficient on the flats but inefficient on the uphills. Mountain runners who race on varied terrain need to train on varied terrain.
The path to increasing running economy is clear, but it arguably requires more work than any other aspect of mountain running. The athlete must train their brain, through millions of repetitions, to move the body economically. Fortunately, running at any speed results in an improvement in economy, and running economy can be improved in conjunction with virtually every other running attribute.
Special attention must be devoted to downhill running. Like other types of speed, downhill running is a function of strength and economy, but it is far more skill based. On the downhills, mountain runners need muscular endurance to absorb the relentless pounding of steep alpine descents. Our muscular endurance progression has proven to be very effective at helping with this special kind of fatigue. While there are some shared adaptations, the muscles used while descending are different from those utilized on the uphills, and special muscular endurance work should be devoted to downhill running strength. Uphill running utilizes more of the posterior chain (think hamstrings and glutes), while downhill running utilizes more of the anterior chain (think quadriceps).
Efficiency is also important here, although it’s slightly different from traditional running economy. Downhill running is a skill that requires agility and quick reactions. The fastest downhillers are constantly working to find the most efficient lines down the mountain. This is efficiency not only from a distance perspective on a winding trail or off-trail scramble but also in terms of how best to carry momentum and reduce braking. Braking is extremely taxing on the musculature and results in a reduction of speed. Power also plays a role here, as higher amounts of power will allow an athlete to carry more speed into a turn or technical section. Further, downhill runners must develop the skill to rapidly place their feet to maximize contact and traction with the ground.
Like developing traditional running economy, the best way to get better at downhilling is to run downhills. Running downhill can result in micro tears to muscles that can take days to recover from. So, be very gradual when increasing the amount of downhill volume in your programming. To develop downhill running skills, consider adding a weekly downhill interval workout on terrain similar to what you will be competing on. In addition to training your brain on rapid foot placement and path selection, this workout will also help you develop relevant muscular endurance and power.
When talking about the brain and physical strength, it’s also important to touch upon mental strength. Put simply, this is your ability to deal with the voices of negativity that exist in every athlete’s mind, whether it’s concern about the difficulty of an effort or your level of preparedness to confront it. Mental strength is also the ability to grind through challenging conditions in the moment and to push to your absolute maximum. A good example of this is found here, Beyond the Breaking Point.
There is a theory that’s popular among exercise scientists: that of the central governor. Basically, it posits that the mind subconsciously limits the body from exerting itself to the point of harm. This is a poorly understood area of sport science, and the theory is not without its detractors. But there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that some sort of limiter is at work to prevent catastrophe when we exercise.
Mental strength, whether it’s pushing through adverse weather or pushing back the central governor, is developed through application of a new level of stress. By executing back-to-back long runs or pushing hard in an interval workout, the body becomes comfortable with, or at least tolerant of, situations that before would have been untenable. Like all stress, it must be administered with adequate time for recovery and adaptation. To some extent this is conscious: Every time an athlete pushes beyond their previous maximum level of adversity, discomfort, distance, or time on foot, their concept of what is possible expands slightly. Difficult experiences in the past give an athlete the confidence to tackle more challenging objectives, which, in turn, give them even more strength for the future. But there is also a deeper, subconscious pushing back of the central governor. It’s thought that time at intensity raises your own governor’s limit, such that more work can be done before the state of alarm is reached and muscle contractions are inhibited.
Besides the above-mentioned “experience” method, there are other actionable techniques for mental strength. Visualizing the effort in the weeks and days leading up to race day is an excellent practice to prepare yourself for a big objective. The benefits are twofold: First, by visualizing an optimum outcome, you can put yourself in the headspace for success. Second, rehearsing and visualizing a complicated objective can help you refine your technique and strategy in advance, enabling you to preemptively address problems that you otherwise would not have thought of. Goal setting is another effective technique; in mountain running, that could involve breaking up a longer effort into easily achievable, measurable goals.
- “I want to catch the runner in front of me.”
- “I want to make it to the next aid station in less than an hour.”
- “I want to run every step of this climb.”
Another excellent tool for mental strength is positive self-talk—shutting down the negative voices and images in your head and replacing them with positive affirmations.
- “I will beat my previous time on this course.”
- “I’ve put in the necessary work. I couldn’t have prepared any better.”
- “I will place in my age group.”
The best tool perhaps is preparation, and the confidence that preparation imparts. Preparation for a complex pursuit like mountain running takes many forms, but climbing offers some insights in Steve House’s video about Perfect Preparation or his article covering What Climbing in Slovenia Taught Me.
Programming Training for Mountain Running
Programming a training plan is simply building a plan for assigning stress. The body doesn’t see workouts and races and long runs, it just sees stress. However, physical stress and mental stress cause similar responses. Have a bad day at work, a poor night’s sleep, an argument with your spouse, and you will likely see a diminished ability to handle training stress. Learning to manage stress and understanding your response to it as an athlete is where the science of training becomes the art of training. Nothing will more powerfully affect your training and subsequent performance than developing this sixth sense.
One goal of training is to adapt your body to handle more physical stress, but don’t forget, you aren’t training more just to develop the capacity to train more in the future. Races aren’t won by those who train the most; if that was the case, we’d all show up on race day and turn in our training logs and decide on a winner. Races are won by those who train the most effectively, and programming must be tailored not just to the individual but to the objective. A word of caution: be careful of societal pressures to increase training intensity or volume. Apps like Strava or frequent group runs can introduce external forces that lead an athlete to push too hard or do too much.
Honestly, it is not that hard to write an effective training program. For those willing to roll up their sleeves and do some work, a careful reading of Training for the Uphill Athlete and the application of the various training plan templates will get you off to a good start. Uphill Athlete also offers training plans for various types of mountain events. The real challenge is the aforementioned effective stress management.
For the inexperienced, when it comes to building a training program, there is a great deal of trial-and-error correction—a sort of “faking it until you make it.” “Making it,” in this context, is not winning the A race but understanding how your body responds to training. There is enormous variation among individuals’ responses to training. Some of that is due to genetics, but the largest part is determined by training history. Someone who was very active as a child, especially through puberty, will respond differently to training than someone who led a sedentary life until taking up running at age 40. Unfortunately, maximizing an athlete’s potential isn’t as easy as just pulling a premade plan off the shelf; a great deal of experimentation and self-awareness are required.
One of the worst mistakes beginners make is to become a slave to their training plan. No matter who writes the plan, even if they’re the best coach in the world, it will need adjusting. No one is omniscient and can foretell how an athlete will feel on Tuesday five weeks from now and whether they will be ready for the planned training session. Think of the plan more as a suggestion than a commandment handed down from God.
Establishing Goals in Mountain Running
The first step in building a training program is to pick an objective. A common way of breaking up a season is into A, B, and C objectives, in descending priority. A good article on this is How to Plan Your Race Season by Uphill Athlete Coach Luke Nelson. A C objective can be incorporated fluidly into training; a B objective may require a short taper and recovery period; and an A objective will likely require a long taper and substantial recovery. Some sports scientists recommend a month to taper for an A endurance race. Further, a true recovery from a marathon or ultra-length effort—necessary for an athlete to perform again at their maximum potential—can take months. Primarily for these reasons, elite marathoners race only a couple of times per year. A comparison to a road marathon isn’t perfect, as road marathoning is far more repetitive and muscularly taxing than a trail race of similar length, but certainly the same logic applies to longer ultra races. To maximize your potential, you might want to be quite selective in choosing your races and prioritizing them.
If you’re still unconvinced, please take a few minutes to read Unstructured Consequences: Luke Nelson’s Hard-Earned Lessons in Planning.
Intro to ultra running
Modulation and Consistency
While initially these may seem contradictory, modulation and consistency provide the foundation to all improvement. This means modulation of training stress within a workout, a day, a week, a season, a year, and a career. Monotonous training is a recipe for disaster. The body needs more stressful periods to induce a response and less stressful periods to recover and adapt. Some athletes benefit from a rest day or two each week, and others do well training through the week. Some athletes benefit from a consistent build-deload cycle—for example, three weeks spent building stress, one week at lower stress—while other athletes benefit from more ad hoc stress and recovery. When first programming your own training, when it comes to increasing volume and intensity, don’t increase both in the same week, and don’t increase either by more than 10 percent week to week. Simultaneously, training must be consistent. Entirely ad hoc, chaotic training plans with irregular intensities and rapidly changing modalities are ineffective and can be dangerous. Training needs to be enumerated, recorded, planned, and consistent to achieve improvements.
In that vein, it’s critical to have a plan and purpose for every workout. For example, a workout that’s purely focused on developing speed or on building muscular endurance should not be limited by terrain technicality, altitude, heat, or energy shortfalls. While it’s important to train these other attributes, be clear about the purpose of each workout and ensure that the environment and execution are supporting that aim.
For all athletes (except those with aerobic deficiency), polarized training is most effective for preparing for endurance races. As was discussed above, perceived exertion at AeT is going to be high for well trained athletes. For them, training in Zone 2 is taxing on their musculature and central nervous system and must be used very sparingly. Polarized training involves spending the majority of your training time (90 percent or more) in Zones 1 and 2 and only 10 percent or less at higher intensities. These percentages are time at intensity, not number of workouts, and the higher-intensity portion does not include low-intensity warm-ups, cooldowns, or rest intervals. Typically, athletes engaging in longer races will execute a higher proportion of low-intensity work relative to athletes engaging in shorter races.
Base Training vs. Specific Training
Broadly, an athlete’s season can be divided into periods of base and specific training. The base period, separated from an athlete’s A races by several months, is the time to build a foundation for later race-specific training. An athlete would be best served during this period by including power workouts (hill sprints) and muscular endurance workouts, one of each per week, two core workouts per week, and large amounts of Zone 1–2 training (depending on the status of their aerobic base). Athletes should engage in at least eight weeks of muscular endurance training to start to see long-term, measurable improvement. Deload weeks, if executed, should retain the same general training structure but cut the volume up to 50 percent. This base period is essential—not only for building strength, economy, and energy production pathways but also for strengthening the ligaments, tendons, and bones needed to support large training volumes.
Two or three months prior to an athlete’s A race, they should transition to training specifically for that race. All athletes should drop muscular endurance training. Athletes training for a VK or a shorter mountain race should retain the hill sprints and replace the muscular endurance work with two interval workouts, one Zone 3 and one Zone 4. Athletes training for longer races should also retain the hill sprints and replace the muscular endurance work with back-to-back long runs and one Zone 3 or Zone 4 interval workout. Specific training could also include shorter races; often while training for a 100-mile race athletes will execute 50-mile or 100K races. Be careful about racing too much, however, as racing is extremely taxing on the musculature and central nervous system. Too much racing, or even too much high-intensity training, is the fastest route to overtraining.
Monitoring Training Progress (or Regression)
As mentioned earlier, the goal of training should be to improve your performance, not to build an impressive training log. So it’s essential to monitor the impact of training on your body, whether positive or negative; the best means of doing this is with a quantitative evaluation. A good performance test is a repeatable physical evaluation you can conduct, preferably with variables (temperature, weather, trail conditions) you can hold constant. The test can be done on a local mountain or trail that you regularly time trial or over a fixed distance on an incline treadmill or StairMaster. By using nothing more than a heart rate monitor, a stopwatch, and your perceived exertion, you can get a great picture of your current training status.
An effective strategy is to conduct two tests: one where you hold your heart rate as close to AeT as possible, followed several days later by an AnT time trial. Do these on courses you can come back to later to do future tests and that, ideally, don’t have any downhill sections. As your aerobic capacity increases, you will be able to maintain a higher pace at AeT, and the time to complete the effort will decrease. Similarly, as your endurance improves, your speed at AnT will increase. We recommend 60 minutes of continuous work for each of these.
It is important to mention this all-too-common elephant in the ultrarunning room. When an athlete trains in excess of what their body can recover from, they enter an overreaching state. If an athlete recognizes their overextended state and increases their recovery, positive adaptations will occur. Strategically overreaching and recovering is an excellent strategy, implemented only very occasionally, when training for ultra-length events. But if an athlete returns to training before they’ve adequately recovered, they are very likely to become overtrained. Many careers in ultrarunning have been ruined by overtraining. Partially this is due to the longer, more stressful events inherent to ultrarunning, and partially this is due to the tendency for ultrarunners to race too many times in a single season. Most elite marathoners run no more than two road marathons in a single season. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to see elite ultrarunners racing five 100-mile races in a single year.
We have an excellent in-depth article on overtraining that includes some illuminating anecdotes and recommendations from elite mountain runners.
Tapering: Do not get Greedy!
In the final weeks leading up to an important race it is not uncommon for an athlete to become anxious and fear that they have not done enough training. Following the kind of training we lay out in Training for the Uphill Athlete should put your mind at ease that you are as ready as you can be given the time frame and your training history.
But if you are not ready, it is too late and you will only make things worse by piling on the training now. This is not like cramming for an exam where you might be able to make up for sleeping through class during most of the semester. To paraphrase famed running coach Renato Canova: In the final weeks before the big race, there is very little the coach (or athlete) can do to make the athlete faster. But there are many things the coach (or athlete) can do to make the athlete slower. Disregard this advice at your peril.
Tapering is essential for maximizing performance. Unfortunately, it is much more of an art than a science and there is no easily applied universal plan that can work for everyone. How you taper has a lot to do with how you train and how tired you are in the final block of heavy training. Only you will know what works best for you.
As general rules we have seen good success with the following:
- For an A-level race longer than 100 miles, you might want to start with a three-week taper.
- For shorter races, two weeks seems to be sufficient.
- Each of these weeks should see a 25 percent drop in total training hours from the week before.
- Speed efforts should be retained, but these should be reduced about half as much as the overall volume.
- In the days prior to the race, athletes shouldn’t worry about unnecessarily eating or carb loading. Eat intuitively. It’s also important to eat the morning of the race.
- Similarly, in the days before, athletes should try to reduce stress—both physical and mental—relax, and stay off their feet.
As the old saying goes, don’t try anything new on race day. Have nutrition, footwear, clothing, and equipment purchased and refined well before the race.
This article was originally published by Scott Johnston.