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The temperatures are climbing, the snow is melting and mountain-running season is so close you can almost feel your quads ache.
If you want to get after it come June or July—but have neglected your mountain-goat muscles all winter—make the most of the next few months.
“Many things can be done in the long spring before the high country is really good for running,” says Megan Kimmel, winner of the 2016 Skyrunner World Series. “And, once the high country is runnable, you are going to want to be in shape.”
We asked several expert mountain runners what they do in April and May to get ready for a summer of epicness. Here’s what they said.
1. Plan Ahead
Know your goals and come up with a plan that works toward them.
“Spring is the time to come up with your dream calendar,” says Mike Foote, the second-place finisher at the 2015 Hardrock 100. “This will dictate how I set up my training in April and May.”
Adding structure to your training is also an effective way to build in recovery and limit the chance of over-exuberance injuries.
“It’s so easy to overdo it as the days get longer and the high country begins to melt out, allowing for more epic runs,” Foote says. “It’s important to have a little restraint in your build-up to summer goals.”
2. Get Back on trails
You’re going to do this whether we tell you to or not. But in addition to sheer enjoyment, getting back on rough terrain can lead to helpful adaptations.
“At this stage, it’s important to gradually get back on the trails and give plenty of time to build up the coordination and strength for uneven terrain and hills,” says Ian Sharman, a three-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100 and head coach at Sharman Ultra. “The earlier a runner can start doing this, the lower the chance of injury in the build-up to a major target race.”
The gnarlier, the better. “If there is some technical steeper stuff available in lower elevation trails, use it,” says David Laney, the third-place finisher at the 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and a coach with Trails and Tarmac. Short, challenging ascents and descents, done once or twice per week, can improve strength and agility that will transfer to high-country rock hopping, Laney says.
If the trails near you turn into mud pits this time of year, run in the morning when the ground is firmer.
3. Build Mountain Strength, Without Leaving Home
While frolicking about in the foothills, make time for boring things like strength exercises, to increase your durability in the season ahead.
“Each spring, as I ramp up my volume and start to integrate some intensity into my training, I do a pretty good job of exposing certain weaknesses in my body,” says Foote, who does specific strength work to address those vulnerabilities.
Strength work can also build hill-climbing power. “If there are no hills where you live, plyometrics are a great thing to mix into your workouts this time of year,” says Kimmel, whose routine includes lunges, single-leg squats, single- and double-leg hops, scissor squats and bounding. (“None of these involve a box, as I still like to be outdoors for exercise,” she says.)
Similarly, coach and Trail Runner contributor David Roche outlines his five-minute routine for mountain-proofed legs here.
4. Run Hills, Any Way You Can
As Kim Dobson, a five-time winner of the half-marathon Pikes Peak Ascent, says, “The goal of early season mountain training is to ease into climbing via whatever uphill terrain is available.”
That includes repeats on short climbs. “They don’t need to be at speed, but just for the motion,” Kimmel says. “Keep in mind that if you have not been doing any uphill or strength training, it is likely to make you sore for two to three days, so do these after your big or specific runs for the week.”
Don’t forget the downhills, which do lots damage to the muscles. “I really push for people doing multiple up and downs,” Laney says.
Laney suggests this down/up workout from his coaching colleague Ryan Ghelfi. Ghelfi prescribes “multiple sets of relatively short fast downhill runs followed directly by short to moderate length runs back uphill,” which steel the quads and help the body adapt to transitions between downhills and uphills.
For big, sustained climbing, look to paved roads (or jeep roads, which melt out faster than singletrack at similar elevations). Dobson, who lives near high-altitude Vail, Colorado, does road runs over mountain passes this time of year, for snow-free, multi-thousand-foot climbs.
And if all else fails, there’s always the treadmill.
If you go straight from zero to 6,000 feet (or higher), you’ll end up working pretty hard.
To acclimatize, get up high by whatever mode you can. In many mountain locales, spring is a great time to play at higher elevations on skis or snowshoes. Those long, mountain-pass roads that Dobson runs are another option.
Early last June, Stevie Kremer, 2014 Skyrunner World Series champion, had a race in China that took place between 15,000 and 21,000 feet.
“I was completely panicked because I had no way to get up high,” says Kremer, who lives in Crested Butte, Colorado, where snow lingers on the 13,000-foot peaks into summer.
So she tacked high-altitude exposure onto hill-running-specific work. “I skied as much as I could around the mountains where I live, and did a ton of workouts on the treadmill, where I would put the incline at 8 percent or more and do speed intervals.”