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No Mountains? No Problem

Training for an ultramarathon is never easy, but it's even tougher when you live in the city. Here are some tips for urban runners.

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Downtown Columbus, Ohio, isn’t exactly an ideal place to train for the 68-mile Georgia Death Race, which features 40,000 feet of elevation change over treacherous terrain. But Nikhil Shah, 43, figured out how to make the most of his city and gym to prepare for it.

Stair workouts at a local dam, two-hour max-incline treadmill hikes in full race gear and strength workouts that blended plyometrics and free weights helped him develop the stamina and agility to handle gnarly singletrack and unending climbs. For downhill conditioning, he found a short stretch of trail with a slope of about 12 percent, and repeatedly hammered down it.

“The max-incline workouts paid off wonderfully.” says Shah. “I got a begrudging ‘good job’ from runners I passed during the relentless climbs.”

Hannah Roberts, 28, of Seattle, a past winner of the HURT and Zion 100-milers, proved it’s possible to train for trail races in an even more limited environment. Deployed for months at a time on a ship as a Navy officer, she ran figure-eights on the deck in a manner that resembled parkour—hopping over obstacles, weaving around shipmates and doing box jumps mid-run—and used the slanted front end of the ship for hill training.

While it certainly helps to train in conditions that perfectly mimic your goal race, it’s not a prerequisite for race-day success.

“Mimic the race as best you can in your own backyard,” says endurance coach Ryan Knapp of Boston, who has trained numerous urban dwellers to run long distances in mountainous regions such as Leadville, Colorado, and the Scottish Highlands.

Adjust Intensity

Ashley Relf, a coach and sports psychologist in Mill Valley, California, advises clients to study course elevation profiles and descriptions in detail and design workouts that imitate the exertion of certain sections.

Says Relf, “Even if you only have access to a flat road and your watch, you can still simulate the effort you’re going to use in the race and terrain by pushing yourself.”

To mimic the effort of rolling hills, for example, try a set of five-minute intervals just below lactate threshold (slightly slower than 10K race pace, or roughly 85 to 90 percent of max heart rate) with one-minute recovery jogs in between. Visualize yourself running uphill during each interval.

To develop endurance and strength for extended time on your feet in an ultra, head out for a medium-length morning run, then, in the evening, go for a brisk walk, wearing a weighted vest or backpack filled with 10 to 20 pounds.

Simulate Hills

If your cityscape or parkland lacks significant hills, use a treadmill and a stairwell to simulate climbs and descents.

Knapp suggests combining treadmill and outdoor running for endurance, variety and race-specific training. For example, Leadville Trail 100 runners need to train for the 3,000-foot climb up Hope Pass, some 40 miles into the race, and subsequent descent. “I might have a client do a longer, 20-mile run, then do a Hope Pass simulation climb on the treadmill, then run another three to four miles hard to simulate the downhill.”

Some treadmills have a decline feature for downhill running. The maximum downward grade is usually 2 percent, but you can increase the steepness by propping up the back end of the treadmill. Use the compass app on your smartphone to estimate the downhill angle.

Stair repeats build lower-body power and cardio fitness, and typically involve running up stairs, then gently jogging or walking down to recover. But trail runners also benefit from the opposite pattern. Go slow and steady up the stairs to practice power hiking—occasionally skipping a step to add variety and increase difficulty—then run faster down the stairs to imitate steep, technical descents.

In a long stairwell, you can do a progression workout: hike up one story, run back down; hike up two stories, run back down; and so on. Then, repeat, but run hard and fast on the up, and go slow on the down to recover.

Build Strength and Agility

Plyometrics—exercises that involve jumping and moving in multiple directions—build leg power and aerobic fitness, improve running economy and challenge the body to move in the idiosyncratic ways that trail running demands. They can be done anywhere, during or immediately following a run, and should be limited to once or twice a week, given the hard effort required.

“Plyos” can be combined with other strength exercises such as step-ups and step-downs, squats, lunges and core work.

Plyometrics have the added benefit of feeling playful and improvisational. Roberts, who now trains in Seattle rather than at sea, challenges herself to get rugged and wild even in the city.

“If I’m running and see a set of stairs, I’ll say, ‘I wonder where that goes?’ If there’s a ledge where I can do box jumps, I’ll do that. If there’s a field, I’ll get on my hands and do bear crawls,” Roberts says. “Look for opportunities that translate well to the trail.”

Five Smart Plyos for Trail Runners

1. Bounding Run with an extra-long, leaping stride for 50 to 100 yards, pushing off with extra effort after each foot strike.

2. Box Jump Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart in front of a raised platform or sturdy box-like surface approximately 12 inches high. (Graduate to 18 to 24 inches high as you improve.) Squat down part way, then jump up and land both feet on the surface. Step back down to lessen impact.

3. Burpee Standing, kick your legs back and land on your hands in a pushup position. Do a pushup, then bring your feet back to their starting position. Stand up and jump in the air with your hands above your head.

4. Grapevine Step to the right with your right foot, then cross your left leg behind it. Step again to the right, then cross your left foot in front. Keep your feet perpendicular to the direction you’re moving. Continue for 25 to 50 yards. Repeat in the opposite direction.

5. Skipping Skip in a deliberate, exaggerated manner, raising each knee extra high and swinging the opposite arm.

Sarah Lavender Smith is a Trail Runner contributing editor, and a personal running coach who trains on the streets and hills around Oakland, California.

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