The best way to improve your climbing long-term is probably not to go out and climb a lot. That statement seems counterintuitive, so let’s power hike our way through the reasoning.
When running uphill or on level ground, you have a certain output. Generally, that output stays the same while climbing even as your pace slows (with the caveat that it’s probably lower on technical climbs). To put numbers on it, 10 minutes per mile pace at 10% grade is about equivalent to 6:54 on flats. In that hypothetical, we controlled for oxygen intake, which we can call aerobic development. So if climbing is not changing aerobic stress, where does the pace variation caused by gravity manifest itself for training purposes?
Fast Training = Fast Climbing
The answer is biomechanical loading patterns. There is reduced impact on the ups–that is mostly good. There is also slightly more muscular endurance strain–also mostly good. However, there is less neuromuscular and biomechanical stress unique to actually going fast. That can potentially be a major concern for long-term growth for some athletes.
It all gets back to running economy, or how much energy it takes to go a given pace. Multiple studies show that running economy on level ground and uphill correlates at any given moment in time (the hypothetical above). And based on tons of athlete stories, we know that fast running training correlates with fast climbing. For example, Grayson Murphy came from the track in 2019 to win the World Mountain Running Championships. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find examples in the opposite direction, where vert-focused training rapidly creates a speed demon.
It’s About the Economy
Why does that matter? The discrepancy likely indicates what training philosophies have internalized over time—climbing ability can improve as an athlete adapts to climbing, but it often reaches a max point relatively quickly. That max is likely based on overall running economy, since you can only adapt to climbing a certain amount before you’re capped out by the muscular endurance demands. Meanwhile, level-ground running economy can be trained over decades.
For example, one study found that Paula Radcliffe’s VO2 max actually dropped slightly over her running career, but her economy improved substantially. In other words, long after her aerobic development slowed down, learning to run faster made her into a world-record holder. Chances are that if she went out and did the Mount Washington Road Race or another climb, she would have set records too. And I’d be willing to bet the house and the dog that if she had focused mostly on vert during her career, she wouldn’t have been as fast on flats or as strong on climbs.
For most athletes, that distinction might not be all that important. Basically, if you run hills in the context of your normal training and don’t seek out vert at the exclusion of everything else, you’ll be fine. The problem I see all the time is that athletes think they need to climb a ton of vert to become a better climber and training extensively at slower climbing speeds eventually makes for a slower athlete overall relative to their genetic potential. There are three big implications for your training.
Step one: Work on your fitness and don’t overemphasize vert
The best climber is usually the best runner with just enough specific training on climbs. So make sure your training is geared toward improving your running. Start with aerobic development, with most of your runs easy, plus cross-training if you enjoy it. Layer in speed, first through flat strides and hill strides, later through intervals and tempos.
Ideally, your weekend runs would be on fun trails where you can get used to climbing and descending. You don’t need to do workouts on the track or anything like that, just think balance.
Step two: Do strength work
Plenty of studies indicate strength work can improve running economy, plus the musculoskeletal stress can mimic climbing without detracting from overall development. I recommend athletes do the 3-minute mountain legs routine three to five times per week, plus band work and whatever other routines are recommended by a strength coach or PT (see sidebar).
Step three: Practice climbing
When you get within a couple of months of races with more vert than you are used to, start to seek out climbs to prepare for the biomechanical stresses that are unique to that activity. Vert chasing in moderation can lead to breakthroughs, just don’t overdo it. It’s especially important for very steep climbs (think 20-plus percent), since level-ground running economy won’t correlate as cleanly as the activity gets farther and farther from running. That’s why cyclists can sometimes be very fast on steep mountain climbs.
In a perfect world, weekend runs would be on trails like you will race, with some mid-week workouts on ups and downs too. If you don’t have access to those types of trails, you can do “treadhills,” treadmill climbs that prepare your body for the specific demands of uphills. The running economy bricks you have gathered through training should correlate directly into a beastly climbing wall, but you need to put it all together with enough specific training to adapt to the loading patterns.
For many athletes, working steep downhills is far more important than uphills due to eccentric muscle contractions that can sap the body’s ability to put out power. A lot of what athletes think is bad climbing prep is just not being ready for downs, so make sure you get steep downs in training even if it means driving somewhere once every four to six weeks during a training build.
To summarize: lots of vert can be a byproduct of a well-rounded training plan. But when it comes to long-term growth over multiple training cycles, it probably shouldn’t be the primary goal.
You Can Be A Superstar Hiker
Hiking usually involves lower output than running. That is a great thing! It means that you probably already have the aerobic and muscular tools to be a superstar hiker; you just need to get the neuromuscular and biomechanical practice to put it into action.
Start by focusing on form. When hiking, lean forward, using your hands to push against your quads if helpful, or just swinging them with focus if it’s not too steep. Emphasize knee drive. Combined with the forward lean, that should engage your glutes.
Next, practice. I like athletes to get the hang of it on a treadmill. Set the grade to 15 percent and push yourself for 20 to 30 minutes. To give you an idea of how much these adaptations can be neuromuscular rather than aerobic, I coach a pro athlete who did this once at four miles per hour with a 160 average heart rate. After a few sessions, they were up to 4.5 miles per hour and 140.
In the four to six weeks before a race that will involve lots of hiking (which is the case for many ultras), doing treadmill hiking once or twice a week is enough to turn it into a skill that will let you slay any race.
Strength Work For Athletes Who Hate Strength Work
The 3-minute mountain legs routine has been used by tons of runners of all levels (including pros). It’s exceedingly simple. Start with single-leg rear lunges, doing 20 to 50 depending on your background. Then do one-legged step-ups on a second stair, working up to 50 overtime (or even 100 if you’re masochistic).
Do the mountain legs routine three to five times per week after runs. It may make you surprisingly sore at first, so start with just a few repetitions to be safe. Add band work for some bonus mobility and strength.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts a weekly, 30-minute podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.