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Trail Tips

Train for Mountain Running, Even if You Live at Sea Level

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The elevation of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania is 531 feet above sea level. The tallest peaks in the area are just a couple miles long.

The elevation of Manitou Springs, Colorado—home of the Pikes Peak Marathon—is 6,320 feet. The high point of the famed race is 14,000 feet. Going from Bloomsburg to Pikes Peak is insanity.

Or so I told Janelle Johnson, a 41-year old from Pennsylvania farm country, a region more known for horses and buggies than mountain runners. Johnson brushed aside my concerns with the laid-back attitude common in her native Australia.

On August 20, Johnson proved me—and conventional wisdom—wrong. Without specific preparation for altitude, and with limited mountain training, she road-tripped to Colorado, camped a few nights in the shadow of Pikes Peak and won the master’s division, finishing eighth female overall.

Johnson’s journey can provide some insight into training for mountain running when you don’t have mountains in your backyard.

1. Speed and aerobic development are the most important elements of reaching running potential.

Even on mountains, being your fastest self is the best way to cover ground quickly. That seems obvious—run fast to climb and descend fast—but all too often, athletes focus too much on climbing and descending. While that type of running is important, it is slower, especially on technical terrain. And over time, running slow can make a runner slower all the time.

“I did a lot of easy runs and strides,” Johnson says. A typical two-day block in the beginning of training was eight miles with 10 x 20 seconds fast/1 minute easy recovery on Tuesday, followed by 15 x 1 minute fast/1 minute easy (with warm up and cool down) on Wednesday—workouts that seem non-specific to Pikes Peak, but laid the groundwork for workouts to come. Her weekly mileage decreased slightly from road marathon training (from 60-70 miles per week to 45-60 miles per week), with the addition of faster work to build running economy.

When training for mountain races, most runners shouldn’t get too specific early in training cycles. Too much focus on climbing and descending can make your running economy worse over time. At the end of the day, running is running, and there is no substitute for being fast.

2. Leg-strength training can make mountains feel like molehills.

Running is a series of small, plyometric movements, akin to repeated short jumps forward. On uphills, those short jumps involve a bit more of a vertical vector; on downhills, they involve more absorption of energy through eccentric muscle contractions. Leg-strength work outside of running can make you better equipped to absorb and transmit energy efficiently.

After every run (six days a week), Johnson faithfully completed this 5-minute mountain legs strength workout. The mix of lunges and quick, one-legged step ups added some resilience and power to her running that would otherwise be difficult to get at sea level.

For your training, use strength work strategically to improve your power transfer on hills. Many athletes want to have an all-or-nothing approach to strength work, with a 30-minute routine or none at all. But, like running, consistency in strength work is key to reinforcing adaptations across training cycles. Instead of the boom-or-bust approach that risks burn out, find a short routine you can do two to five times per week after your runs.

3. If you can’t do specific training, get creative with the treadmill and smaller hills.

While you might not have big hills in your backyard, you can have the biggest hills in your basement or gym through the treadmill. And while your downhills might not be big, you can make them mighty through intervals designed to prepare for the specific movements of mountain races.

Johnson’s training revolved around two key workouts a week—one with hill intervals, one with a long run. The final eight weeks prior to Pikes Peak looked like this (workouts mid week with warm up and cool down, and long runs on the weekend):

Week 8: 16-mile long run; 8 x 3 minutes fast on flat ground with 1 minute easy recovery.

Week 7: 20-mile long run; a.m. 5 x 3 minute hills hard (run down recovery) and p.m. one hour at 14-percent grade.

Week 6: 20-mile long run; a.m. 3 x 5 minute hills hard (run down recovery) and p.m. one hour at 14-percent grade

Week 5: 16-mile long run; a.m. 2 x 8 minute hills hard (run down recovery) and p.m. one hour at 14-percent grade.

Week 4: Mountain race away from home (14 miles hard); 10-minute hard climb and descent.

Week 3: 24-mile long run; no specific workout.

Week 2: 16-mile long run; 10/8/6/4/2-minute hills moderate/hard (run down recovery).

Week 1: 12-mile long run; 4 x 3 minute hills hard (run down recovery)

PIKES PEAK MARATHON!

During the long runs over the final six weeks, Johnson would aim to run down a steep grade moderately hard for a total of 10-20 minutes of fast, steep descending. The treadmill workouts involved a mix of hiking, running and intervals, and they were done as double-runs (a second run on a workout day) to maximize stress for the upcoming marathon. The rest of the days were easy, with some strides thrown in two times per week.

While Johnson’s approach was designed for an advanced athlete, anyone can benefit from using the treadmill and small hills to train for mountains. Steep, sustained climbing on the treadmill builds fitness and mental toughness. During long runs, even if your biggest hill is a 30-second long highway overpass or set of stadium stairs, run down that hill and/or those stairs hard to prepare for the specific movements of mountain racing.

4. The sauna can produce some adaptations that help at altitude.

Preparing for high altitude from lower elevations is especially difficult. Heat training can increase blood plasma volume and mimic some of the adaptations from living at elevation.

Johnson did an adapted sauna protocol, and many of her key runs had a heat index over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. These routines may have helped, and at the very least they made her mentally stronger.

Consider using the sauna if your race is higher up in elevation than where you live and train. Some research indicates that dry sauna use can help performance at sea level too. The general protocol is 20-30 minutes in a dry sauna sometime after runs. For an added stimulus, look into more advanced protocols involving timing of rehydration to optimize blood volume adaptations.

5. Avoid exceeding lactate threshold in a race at altitude when unacclimated

At altitude, once you go red-line, you don’t go back. Short bursts of intensity that are easy to recover from at sea level can sabotage a race by flooding the muscles with chemical byproducts that cannot be cleared as efficiently with limited oxygen.

To combat the effects of altitude, Johnson first did a few short, intense intervals (4 x 3 minute hills) a few days before the race at 10,000 feet elevation. While the physiological purpose of the hills is debatable, they allowed her to recalibrate her mindset for altitude. Come race day, Johnson started far slower than she would at sea level, taking it relatively easy for the entire uphill grind.

For your training and racing, be cautious on uphills at altitude. Since downhills don’t raise your heart rate as much as uphills, you can still run them with purpose most of the time.

“On race day I was super nervous,” says Johnson. “But I felt as prepared as I possibly could coming from sea level.” When the going got tough, she trusted her training—primarily the hill intervals and treadmill workouts. Then, on the brutal 13-mile descent, the leg-strength protocol prepared her for the pounding.

Her initial goal time back in April was six hours 30 minutes. Her actual time was five hours 32 minutes 29 seconds.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.