For the majority of competitive runners the aim is to train high and race low. But mountain runners have to train high because they race high. Authentic terrain training, if you like. You’ll know you’ve found the sweet spot when the grass is thin, the trees even thinner, and your efforts are serenaded by the whistles of agitated marmots.
Explaining how mountain running fits into the realm of traditional athletics isn’t always easy, but as the strong mountain running contingent in the Ugandan team at the World Cross-Country Championships demonstrated earlier this year, it often pays to have trained and raced on the tough stuff. Look at Yeman Crippa or Allie Ostrander, for example – both Junior World Mountain Running Champs, and both strong as hell at cross-country and on the track these days.
Weirdly, neither of them have returned for a senior title. Perhaps because, as Crippa once told us, you won’t make money in this sport.
Fortunately that’s not why we do it.
My girlfriend – the one behind the lens for these photos – came from a standard British track-and-field and cross-country background to take a silver medal at the World Mountain Running Championships in 2015 and then win the Europeans in 2016. An up-and-down course in Northern Italy with two laps that skirted up to a castle. A really diverse route in stunning scenery that asked for major changes in pace – perhaps the sport’s two biggest hooks. Personally I’ve always loved the thrill of running for a time and running fast on the roads, but the places that mountain running takes you to is something else. I guess this goes back to my own roots in mountain bike racing–an appetite for multi-terrain, mountains, and a parcours that demands concentration, coordination and endurance all in one.
The lifestyle of mountain running is also an escape, one that takes you away from the fast-paced urban environment. We work freelance, which gives us flexibility to train and lets us pick and choose locations, slotting sessions into working days on mountaintops.
The season runs from late April to late September and training is largely reflective of standard athletics apart from a few prime examples, best done at altitude. Here’s our pick of the staples:
Triangle session: changing tempo with a change in gradient – The unique challenge that mountain running poses to those who want to master it is the ability to get your body used to changes in gradient. Uphill means a slow grind, downhill means control and pounding, whilst the flat brings you back to typical road running strides. The ‘Triangle Session’ is a typical feature in the mountain runners’ repertoire to prepare precisely for this.
Essentially a fartlek, the focus is on running through the transitions of flat-to-climb, climb-to-descent, descent-to-flat. Repeat multiple times. The circuit should be around 2 km, ideally at altitude, and with climbs/descents that are runnable at full gas–not so steep that you end up walking or downclimbing.
5km warm up.
Option 1: 2 x (5’ hard - 3’ steady - 4’hard - 3’ steady - 3’ hard - 2’ steady - 2’ hard - 2’ steady - 1’ hard - 1’ steady)
Option 2: Fartlek 4 x (3’/2’/1’ hard) all with 2’ steady recovery.
Where: A circuit with flat-climb-flat-descent. Best case scenario: undulating gravel track.
Uphill: the heart of mountain running – Mountain running would not be mountain running if it took place on the flat. An obvious statement but one that is at the centre of this discipline. Many races are uphill-only, and others will almost certainly include one of the kind. Don’t despair if you’re not able to push on the climbs; this comes with time. And if you’re just not into going uphill, again, this might also come with time. Remember that these climbs are off-road, on anything from goat paths to ski slopes, meaning you need to be agile in changing your gait as the terrain demands.
5km warm up
Option 1: Simulated VK with 1,000 metres of climbing over 4–6 km ~ 40 minutes of effort. Jog down or take the lift.
Option 2: 7 x 3’ climb on footpath or 10 x 2’, jog or walk down.
Downhill/technical training - Probably one of the most contentious parts of mountain running. Unlike the more extreme sky races, mountain running races features runnable downhills, which means you’ll need to train this element to make sure you muscles can cope with the pounding. As they say, DOMS is real. It’s a good idea to include gym work that strengthens lower legs and improves proprioception because a less-than-brilliant climber can take back a lot of time with a fast descent. Or, do like many, and avoid downhills entirely.
Long run - For an authentic long run, create a route that dips and rises with varying terrain. Make it enjoyable too. It’s not always about the training; oftentimes it just takes an adventure to reignite your competitive edge. Think of yourself as fortunate because this long run is quite self-indulgent and less mechanical than its road and track counterparts.
Tempo run – Pick this route wisely so your stride won’t be affected by gnarliness. Gravel is best here and there’s nowhere better than Lago di Cancano for a standard tempo run. Pancake gravel at 2,200 metres above sea level. Go round two lakes for 17 km. Add in some progression towards the end and make the most of the sublime scenery.
Altitude matters - Carrying out any speed session at altitude will pay dividends. Any variation of intervals will do, just keep it varied. Road is best here – speed counts. You’ll appreciate having done these sessions when you’re able to glide past those tough mountain runners who got the better of you on the climb.
Don’t neglect speed - As you get into mountain running it’s easy to focus on how many metres you climbed in a week, or what an amazing place a long run took you too, but don’t neglect speed. Here in Valtellina the number one running discipline is mountain running – maybe it’s because of the valley’s steep sides, but there is little focus on fast running. That means that with the ability to kick in a couple kms at a solid road 10km pace on the flat you’ll have a huge advantage at local races. At World Cup Mountain Running races, speed is a must, so keep the ability to go fast on your radar, because it’s the ace to have up your sleeve.