By Luke Nelson
The worlds of trail and ultra running are growing incredibly fast. Athletes from all types of mountain sports, as well as track and road runners, are signing up for these races to test their bodies and minds against the difficulties associated with running in the mountains. It also seems that the more technical and demanding these mountain races are, the more popular they become. As it turns out, however, making the transition from running roads or climbing peaks to running an ultra-distance in the mountains, whether for a race or a route, has a relatively steep learning curve. Here are a few tips that will make the transition a bit easier.
My favorite mountain races and routes have big changes in elevation, long uphill and downhill sections, and little to no flat running. For those accustomed to running roads, these kinds of races will be particularly difficult. Here’s a tip: walking can often be more efficient than running on steep hills. The trick here, though, is to walk with intention. Don’t lollygag. Sometimes referred to as power hiking, this type of walking is about finding the most efficient stride for uphill locomotion. Long, powerful steps are ideal on moderately steep grades, while shorter, quicker strides are better as the grade increases. On very steep terrain, steeper than 20%, short strides, with hands on knees can keep the pace quick. When appropriately employed, these walking styles will take a much smaller toll on your body then breakneck jogging the entire event.
As the saying goes, “what goes up must come down.” Once you’ve power-hiked your way to a summit, it’s time to turn your attention to the long descent. Descending, when done correctly, can lead to a significant advantage over others who have poor technique. The first tip is, get your head up; or, more importantly, your eyes. The human cerebellum has an incredible ability to determine where the body is in relation to its surroundings. By getting your eyes up and scanning the trail ahead, you’ll take cleaner, more efficient lines, and you’ll have more time to make changes in speed or trajectory. Second tip, get off the brakes and lean into the descent. Runners new to mountainous terrain often lean back and in doing so work the quads much harder. Like a skier ‘getting out of the backseat’, leaning into the descent will lessen the impact on the quads and open the stride, making the descent quicker and more efficient.
Mountain races, with all the ups and downs, are rarely held where the trails are overly manicured and smooth. It is common to find very technical trail surfaces, which may by rocky, loose, and difficult to run on. Long hikes through scree or talus fields, or off a trail entirely, are a great way to develop your ability to move quickly and efficiently through technical terrain. Similar to downhill running, it is important here to get your eyes up, determine where your feet will be landing several steps ahead, and trust your brain to put it all together. Quick reactions to unstable footing will be necessary, and they become easier with practice.
The more refined your technique becomes, the more your body will be able to tolerate long and fast runs in the mountains. That said, all the skill and technique in the world won’t do you a lick of good if you don’t fuel your body properly. The average human body has enough reserves to maintain a solid pace without needing fuel for up to a couple of hours, but as the fuel reserves dip, so will the pace. Entire volumes have been written about different fueling strategies for endurance running; I won’t try to condense them here into a single paragraph. The point is, fuel will be needed for any long distance run, and you should develop your strategy well in advance. A combination of energy gels, liquid calories and solid foods should be used over the course of a mountain race – but it’s up to you to find the mixture and balance of those items that works best for your body. Fueling is often an afterthought, as we grab a few gels and an energy bar at the last minute on the way to the race. Don’t fall into that trap. What you eat and how you eat it can make a huge difference, not just in your performance, but in your comfort during the race, and your recovery after it.
Another piece of the mountain running puzzle that has been the subject of much debate is proper footwear. Again, books have been written about this, and there’s no one right answer. The tip here is to find footwear that will meet the demands of the terrain. There’s no one pair of shoes that will be ideal for all races. For races on technical rocky terrain, make sure to get a shoe with an appropriate amount of traction, both lug size and sticky rubber, and protection. For example, the La Sportiva Akasha, which offers sticky rubber, moderate lugs, and good rock protection. Technical rocky terrain can wreak havoc on the foot if it is not adequately protected. The longer the race, the more important this will become. Of course, if the majority of the race occurs on gentler, more manicured terrain, you can get away with a more traditional running shoe, or a minimalist mountain running shoe. Try out several different kinds of shoes, see what other runners have used in similar terrain, and if you end up getting a new shoe specifically for a race, make sure to break it in on long practice runs before the race actually happens!
While all of these tips may be individually helpful, my final, and most holistic advice, is to simply spend more time in the mountains. It may sound intuitively obvious, but the best way to prepare for long runs in the mountains is to go for long runs in the mountains. All of the previous mentioned tips for uphill running, downhill running, running technical terrain, fueling and footwear need to be practiced. But the best way to practice them all together, in an integrated and efficient way, is to simply go on more mountain runs. With practice of the craft, the craft will improve. For those of you who needed another excuse to spend more time running in the mountains, there it is. And for those of you to whom that sounds like a chore, trail and ultra running may not be the best sport for you in the first place.