Learning From the Masters of Mountain Running
What you can apply to your training so you can run faster in the mountains too!
by Coach Sandi Nypaver
What’s their secret? What makes elite mountain runners so fast and how do they make it look like they’re gracefully dancing over technical terrain? Is it all good genes or are they doing something differently in training than everyone else?
(Spoiler alert: They’ve got some great genes, but their training plays a significant role as well.)
Part of my personal coaching philosophy is that there’s always more to learn. As soon as I don’t believe that or start thinking I know it all, I’ll no longer consider myself a good coach. With this in mind, when the opportunity came to talk to some of the 2019 Golden Trail Series finalists, I seized the opportunity to learn from those who have seemingly mastered the art of mountain running. Since I know many ultra runners will be reading this, I’ll also dive into mountain races of ultra distances as well.
As the top mountain runners from around the world, some may expect that the majority of their training is done in the mountains. However, quite a few of the runners only ran in the mountains a couple of times a week, otherwise training on flat roads or rolling hills. What I believe should be emphasized is that when they do go to the mountains, they ensure that time is well used for race-specific training. To a bystander, the runners may appear to be nimbly and effortlessly flying down technical terrain, but in reality, the runners are training their minds to sustain a remarkable focus for miles of downhill running, allowing them to become more agile over rocks and roots. It’s this training that also prepares their legs to handle the impact of downhill running so that they can still run uphills or over flat terrain. While your legs can better adapt to running downhill, there’s always going to be additional stress on the legs from running long mountain descents. An educated assumption would be that the runners who only did 2-3 mountain focused runs per week were well adapted to the training since their legs were better able to recover.
An additional subject matter is that these runners weren’t putting in many 100 mile weeks. Often the mileage was significantly lower than that, partly due to the demand of the series and partly due to the acknowledgment that it’s easy for your form and footwork to get sloppy if running endless hours in the mountains. Another factor is that 10 mountain miles take significantly longer than 10 flat miles. One of the upcoming stars of sub-ultra mountain running even mentioned the longest run of his life had only been about 12 miles until he began the series. This would leave most runners unprepared, but for him, fresh legs paid off big time! Perhaps the most common theme was that getting in high-quality workouts a couple of times a week was of high importance.
While I was expecting to hear different training approaches, even I was taken aback when one of the male runners said he did half or more of his training on his bike. He was convinced it aided his running. On the other hand, two of the top females who enjoy cycling weren’t convinced that their time on a bike was helpful unless it was after a race. They all might be right. If a runner spends some training time on a bike, that runner may be able to gain some additional fitness without putting a lot of additional stress on their body. It’s easy to point at professional triathletes who can run impressive marathon times even though they’re spending a significant amount of training time on a bike or in the pool. Would they run faster if they focused on running? Most likely the answer is yes, but that could increase their injury risk which is the main reason I might suggest an injury-prone runner spend time on the bike. Additionally, it has been theorized that mountain bikers are often better at running downhill on technical terrain. This is partly due to being trained to react quickly, good balance, and the ability to turn fear into focus. On the other hand, if too much time is spent cycling, runners may actually hurt their running performance. This could be an article in itself, but one of the big things is the difference in muscle groups each activity requires. Many runners become too quad dominant while on a bike and this can make a full hip extension by using your glutes difficult as you run, causing a runner’s stride to be less efficient.
Another form of mountain-running specific training for several of the 2019 Golden Trail Series Finalists worth mentioning is Skiing. Generally, this involves Ski Mountaineering specifically, although cross country skiing was also an activity that these top mountain runners seemed to have been involved in from time to time. From an aerobic base building stand-point (especially as an “off-season winter” sport/activity) these kinds of activities can provide a sustainable boost to the heart and lung power as well as aerobic enzyme development and capillary building/blood flow. Also due to the nature of huge vertical gain and the muscular demands on not only the legs but also the core muscles (and arms!) skiing can build tremendous strength as well and appears to be quite transferable to gains in running mountain running peak performance for the summer months.
What about mountain runners doing ultra distances?
Up until now, I’ve focused on sub-ultra races, but it would be interesting to think about some of these ideas in regards to one of the world’s most famous 100 milers, UTMB. I recently listened to a podcast where someone stated that Americans don’t do well at UTMB because the trails are so different compared to the trails in the United States. Thankfully, someone immediately mentioned that more than a few American women have absolutely crushed that race. American men deserve some acknowledgment, as well as quite a few, have had top 10 performances. This isn’t really surprising because the trails of UTMB (with the exception of TDS) are actually quite easily mimicked in many mountain ranges in the United States. I’ve been lucky enough to tour the entire UTMB course and in many regards, the trails are less technical compared to some of my favorite mountain trails in Colorado. Perhaps the main difference is that it’s not always easy to get in 4500’ in one continuous climb or descent.
This brings us to the question, why hasn’t an American man actually won UTMB? I won’t pretend I know the answer with absolute certainty, but I believe it’s possible that the obsession of tracking both mileage and elevation gain/loss in addition to the need to compare training has led to top contenders losing the race before it even began. I don’t think it’s a surprise that when it comes to a race like UMTB, the runners who are known to run the highest mileage and get in the most elevation gain often (but now always!) end up behind the runners who train a fair amount, but significantly less.
What does this mean for your own training?
With big goals looming on the race calendar we often find ourselves believing that more is always better, but more can sometimes lead to our bodies breaking down without receiving the intended adaptations. An important part of mountain running is feeling strong all around and accepting what needs to be done to avoid an injury. It can be a struggle to figure out how to balance getting in enough hills or mountains, mileage, and speed workouts in training, not to mention cross-training and strength sessions. Furthermore, we have to factor in how important it is to train our legs to handle the stress of fast downhills in addition to remembering the fact that it’s difficult to keep a low heart rate running uphill. All these things matter when it comes to mountain running and finding the right balance can be a daunting challenge. However, through some experimenting and a willingness to honestly listen to your own body, it is possible to figure out what works best for you.
When I’m training for a mountain-ultra race compared to a flatter, more “runnable” ultra, I’ve personally found that I do best by reducing my mileage by 25% or more to still run well while adding in more climbing. This past year coach Sage, the only American male to be a top 10 finalist in the Golden Trail Series in both 2018 and 2019, found this worked for him as well in addition to placing a focus on high-intensity intervals. This was only after he established a mileage base that included tempo runs to support the intensity. One of my athletes had huge success by alternating their training focus every other week. One week the focus would be on short hill repeats and lots of elevation change while mileage would take a back seat. The next week, mileage would increase but the majority of the runs were flat and speed workouts would typically be closer to a tempo effort. For other athletes, having a more consistent schedule worked by focusing on race-specific mountain runs 1-3x per week, keeping other runs on the flatter side. Many athletes need more time to recover while adding in elevation change, either with more recovery days or even “recovery” weeks. In some rare cases, getting in speed sessions with tons of mileage and high elevation change week after week worked for a certain period of time, but for the majority of trail runners that I’ve seen try that (including myself), that’s more likely a good way to pick up sloppy form habits and underperform on race day.
As a coach, I’ve seen the benefits of having a well thought out plan to get in a certain amount of high-quality sessions, enough miles and enough elevations change. You don’t want to look back on your training and think “Wow! No wonder why my legs were destroyed halfway through!” However, any good plan needs to be flexible so a runner can experiment to find what combination of key factors (miles, elevation, speed, etc.) works best for the individual. The most important part of this is noticing how you feel and how your body is responding. This is why ALL runners should be tracking how they truly feel each day. (I say “truly feel” for a reason as runners have a bad tendency to downplay how tired or sore they are.) If you feel like you’re constantly slogging up and down mountains or hilly trails, it’s probably time to take a step back. As I alluded to above, part of the reason some Europeans might be better at technical trails is that it’s easier to be focused and practice good footwork on legs that feel strong and fresh. The more elevation change in a race, the more important it is to stay away from the “more is a better” trap and realize that you finding your own right balance is the only way to reach your potential at that race that has been filling you with excitement.
(Note for females: Around ovulation, there’s an increased risk for ligament damage. To avoid an injury descending on technical trails, make sure you are fully warmed up before running by doing some activation and stabilization exercises. As you run, put an emphasis on keeping good form and if jumping over rocks be mindful of how you’re landing. Paying extra attention to these things during ovulation can benefit you at all times throughout your cycle and training.)
Millet, G. P., Vleck, V. E., & Bentley, D. J. (2009). Physiological differences between cycling and running. Sports Medicine, 39(3), 179-206.
*Most of these studies were done solely on men.