UTMB (170km), CCC (100km), and OCC (55km) – collectively the UTMB Finals – are among the most participated trail races in the world. As outlined in our UTMB course explained article, UTMB 170km distance has over 10,000m (~33,000 feet) of climbing through the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps, with multiple passes above 2,500m (8,000 feet).
The author of this article, Will Weidman, coach at Uphill Athlete, has finished UTMB (106-mile) three times, twice in the top 75 (out of 2,700 participants), and as the 3rd American in 2021. He has coached numerous athletes to success at UTMB, CCC, and OCC.
If you have secured an entry into the UTMB World Series Finals, you must figure out how to crack the distances in your category. Training for mountain running events demand specificity. From his experiences, Will has distilled his top five training tips for the UTMB Finals.
UTMB TRAINING TIP #1: RIGHT-SIZED LONG RUNS WITH TEMPO EFFORTS
ARE YOUR LONG RUNS TOO LONG?
With a race as long and difficult as UTMB, we are tempted to do extremely long runs. Surely with a 170km race with 10,000m of vertical gain, you should regularly be doing runs over 30 miles, right? Not exactly.
Plenty of research points to diminishing fitness returns from long runs over 3-4 hours. It is also hard on your body, risking injury and compromising the rest of your training.
With long runs over 5-6 hours, it is also inevitable that your pace is slower. With slow training, your body adapts to running at a slow pace. While this sounds intuitive, many athletes are dismayed to find they got slower after putting in hard work on burly long runs.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR RUNS BE FOR UTMB PREPARATION?
There is a role for epic long runs (see tip # 5 below), but the sweet spot for most training cycles is around 3-4 hours.
This allows for faster recovery and resuming quality workouts in 48-72 hours. Injury risk is also reduced.
ADD TEMPO EFFORTS
Right-sizing your long run also lets you incorporate intensity. Running faster during a long run improves fitness in numerous ways – running economy, power, lactate threshold, speed at lactate threshold, and more.
After a 20 to 30-minute warm-up, start with a 20-minute tempo effort or 3 x 8-minute tempo intervals with 5 minutes rest. The rest of the run should be at an easy effort. You can build to one hour at a harder effort, roughly your 2-3 hour race pace.
The hard effort earlier in the run makes your fatigue levels much higher for the rest of the run. This can make a 3-4 hour run feel much more like a 5-6+ hour run, improving fatigue resistance without as much wear and tear on your body.
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GETTING A 3-HOUR PR IN MY 2019 UTMB
It is no secret that most runners slow down dramatically in the back half of a 100-miler.
I struggled mightily in the back half of the 2017 UTMB, fighting to hold my own and losing a few places. I finished in 30 hours on a course that was about one hour shorter because of course alterations due to bad weather.
In 2019, I arrived at Courmayeur at about the same time as in 2017 at 165th place. The back half was a whole different story. I closed hard, passing almost 100 runners to finish at 72nd place. No one passed me after Champex-Lac, and my 28-hour finish was a 3-hour improvement relative to the previous course.
I credit much of this improvement to right-sizing my long runs and incorporating more intensity. It gave me a different gear on race day, and my fatigue resistance was far higher.
UTMB TRAINING TIP #2: HILL INTERVALS
WHY SHOULD YOU DO HILL INTERVALS FOR UTMB TRAINING?
Hill intervals are the best mid-week workout for races like UTMB, CCC, and OCC. Increasing your uphill power and speed will make the 3,000-5,000 foot climbs more manageable regardless of your race goal.
Hill intervals provide a great VO2Max stimulus and more muscular engagement than intervals on flat terrain. Another benefit is less biomechanical stress compared to flat interval running. This is especially important for injury-prone athletes or athletes over 35.
HILL INTERVALS PROTOCOL
Start with an easy 2-3 mile warm-up. Find a hill around 6-8% grade, which is the sweet spot to work muscular strength while still getting good leg turnover.
Hill intervals should be 2-3 minutes hard uphill with easy running or walking downhill, depending on your fitness. If you are newer to these workouts, target 10 minutes of uphill intervals at first, and you can increase this over time to around 20 minutes.
Examples of typical workout structures are 5×2 min uphill intervals, progressing over time to 6×3 min. Focus on effort, form, and keeping a fast cadence versus a specific pace.
These are tough workouts, but they also get you incredibly fit.
UTMB TRAINING TIP # 3: QUAD-SMASHING DESCENTS
STEEP DOWNHILLS REPEATS
The best way to prepare for the steep descents of UTMB is to find steep and sustained descents (ideally greater than 20% grade), run down with purpose at a moderate effort, and repeat.
Unfortunately, this is a case where there isn’t a good substitute for the real thing. If you don’t have access to this type of terrain, try to schedule a training camp where you can get steep descents once or twice before the race.
TECHNIQUE FOR STEEP DESCENTS
The technique is critical during steep downhills. Most runners tend to lean back while trying to stay in control.
However, you want to do just the opposite. Leaning forward avoids putting on the brakes and counterintuitively gives you better control.
Practice looking ahead at least 10-20 feet down the trail and short, quick strides. Your cadence on steep downhills should be 20+ strides per minute faster than on flat ground.
HOW I TRAIN FOR STEEP DOWNHILLS TRAINING BEFORE UTMB
I regularly made trips to Shenandoah National Park before UTMB, where I could find multiple descents of 1,500+ feet (500+ meters) at 15-30% grade.
I ran a route that combined multiple different descents, frequently repeating the steeper ones. My favorite was a trail that plunged 1,500 feet in just a mile.
These routes would get me 7,000 to 10,000 feet of steep descending (2,000 to 3,000 meters) in 20-25 miles, and they were essential in steeling my quads for the downhills at UTMB.
UTMB TRAINING TIP #4: COMBO WORKOUTS
WHAT ARE COMBO WORKOUTS?
WHY ARE COMBO WORKOUTS HELPFUL?
The UTMB Finals courses have steep climbs and several flat, runnable sections. Combining fast, flatter running with hard hill intervals is a great simulation for these races.
Finally, combo workouts build mental toughness and resilience, which you can draw upon on race day.
EXAMPLE OF COMBO WORKOUTS FOR UTMB
While there are infinite permutations of combo workouts, here are a few of my favorites for the UTMB Finals races:
- 5×90-second hill intervals. 5 minutes easy. 20-minute tempo effort.
- 30-minute tempo effort. 5 minutes easy. 4×1-min hill intervals.
- 5×3-min hill intervals. 5 minutes easy. 15-minute moderate/hard effort.
All of these should be done with at least a 20-minute easy warm-up and a 15-minute easy cooldown.
WHEN SHOULD YOU DO COMBO WORKOUTS?
UTMB TRAINING TIP #5: EPIC MOUNTAIN DAYS
WHAT IS AN EPIC MOUNTAIN DAY, AND WHY SHOULD YOU DO THEM?
This is an 8-10 hour day, ideally on terrain miming CCC or UTMB as much as possible. These should be done entirely at an easy effort, or Z1.
The main goal is not fitness but to simulate race conditions as much as possible. You can get away with many things for a 3-4 hour long run that cause problems when you are out there for 8+ hours, and you want to find those out before race day.
The UTMB Finals races have long lists of required gear. Bring all of it with you to ensure you are comfortable with the heavier pack and that your gear is dialed in. If you plan to use poles, bring them. This is a great opportunity to ensure your shoes and socks work well and do not cause blisters.
Practice with race day fueling with the goal of having a happy stomach at the end and feel like you could continue fueling. Ideally, stage some aid stations along the route, or set up your car as an aid station and circle back periodically.
HOW DO YOU INCORPORATE EPIC MOUNTAIN DAYS INTO YOUR TRAINING?
I recommend doing these only once or twice in the build-up to UTMB, ideally 4-6 weeks before the race. You can include another one 8-12 weeks before the race if you can.
You can plan a destination trip or training camp if you don’t live near conditions similar to Chamonix. Take two full easy days or rest days before and after these big adventures.
MY EPIC MOUNTAIN DAYS
Before my 2021 UTMB finish, I was fortunate to be able to run on the UTMB course on my birthday while on a family vacation. I ran the first 36 miles of the course and then got a ride back to Chamonix.
I have also put together a route in the nearby Shenandoah National Park with 37 miles and 9,500 feet of climbing. This typically takes me 8-9 hours. Several water sources are on the route, and a store at mile 25 serves as a great aid station.
UTMB, CCC, and OCC are challenging events. Preparing for the UTMB Finals requires a strategic approach to training.
There are many aspects of training for mountain runners, but I have found these five training tips to make a big difference in my three UTMB finishes and for the dozens of athletes I’ve coached through these races to greatly enhance your chances of success in these challenging trail races.