Mountains. Big mountains. Lots of vert, epic overlooks and speedy, gnarly descents in the backcountry.
If you’re anything like me, the more rugged, remote, and mountainous the race, the more my mojo starts pumping. In running we can challenge ourselves against the clock and each other, but we can also challenge ourselves against the terrain.
And the more batshit crazy the terrain, the more people seem to flock to it.
The only problem? Most runners live nowhere near the mountains.
A few years ago I moved from Washington, DC to the Western North Carolina mountains in Black Mountain, NC. We had hills in DC and mountains a few hours away, but nothing like what I have now.
And I’m not going lie, the idea of running a mountain race scared the crap out me. As much as I wanted to run a race with big vertical numbers, I found myself sticking mostly to the flat trails in my area.
After all, how can one expect to take the quad-busting pounding of mountain running on race day when they train on tiny hills?
Through some extra hard work, creativity, and discipline. That’s how.
The Flatlanders Guide to Training for the Mountains
Are you a flatlander who wants to run or race in the mountains? Here are six approaches to building the strength and power you need to tackle the climbs.
1. Use what you have.
Look for mountains in everything.
That was my mantra in DC. Instead of wishing for mountains outside my back door, I created them by using what I had. They might not have been long, but I took full advantage of every foot I could gain.
Here are a few of the common places you can find “mountains”.
Stairs are just about everywhere — in your home, office building, stadium, or apartment complex — and if you live in the city chances are you have access to a few buildings with several floors.
Climb them, over and over. Your hill workouts can turn into 50 flights of stairs.
Of course, no staircase is created equal, but your average staircase is about 10-12 feet of climbing. 50 flights is 500 feet of gain.
Mix it up with outdoor stairs in parks or stadiums, which tend to be spaced differently and are often further apart.
We trail runners like to bash the dreadmill, but it can be an incredible training tool at times, especially for hills.
There are two types of treadmill hill workouts I recommend:
- Long and steep — Crank up your treadmill to the highest incline and power up it for 15 – 20 minute intervals.
- Rolling — Some treadmills come with a rolling hills presetting, where they randomly raise and drop the incline for different lengths of times. If your treadmill doesn’t have that setting, do it yourself to mimic the rolling gradual hills of the trail.
A friend from Florida once told me they ran up and down parking garages because it was the only hill in town. I love it.
Find a mountain in everything.
Best of all are actual hills, especially if they’re longer. While it might be mind-numbingly boring, each repeat adds up for both climbing and descending training, and an hour of powering up and down hills can add up to a lot of vertical change.
Do you have access to both short (steep) and long (gradual) hills? Mix it up regularly to practice both the sustained climbing of a gradual hill and the short effort bursts that come with steep hills.
Quick Tip: Don’t forget to practice speed hiking on the steeper hills.
2. Simulate shifts in leg stress.
Successful ultrarunners are masters of maintaining a consistent effort. No matter the terrain, they know how to adjust pace and speed to keep their effort level in check. That keeps the engine running for hours on end.
But consistent effort doesn’t mean your legs will face consistent stress. Like it or not, uphills are harder on certain muscles than flats or downs, and flats and downs — as fun as they may be — test your body in their own unique ways.
It’s not perfect, but one way to mimic shifts in leg stress (and also, in return, effort) without hills is to simulate those shifts through varying intensity. Confused?
Let’s break it down:
During a race you may face several different climbs of 20-30 minutes, followed by a stretch of flat along a ridge-line or descent. You can mimic those shifts in training by varying your effort throughout a run.
For example, run 20 minutes at a easy pace to simulate the flat or descent, then 30 minutes at a tempo effort to account for the climb. Follow that up with another 20 minute easy “descent” and another 20-30 minute tougher climb.
3. Toughen the mind.
I’ll never forget leaving the aid station at mile 94 of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 tired, beaten up, and ready to finish, and coming face-to-face with the daunting climb that lay ahead. The climb was a relatively short 500 feet of gain, but at the end of a race with over 16,000, it felt like Everest.
“How the hell am I going to get up to that ridge?” I thought to myself.
And for the umpteenth time that day, I felt like crying. Or quitting. Or punching my pacer out of frustration — even though he was the only reason I made it that far.
During any race, climbs are almost always the most mentally straining part of a course. Whether you can see the summit or not, it takes guts and determination to power up instead of retreating down.
Throughout your training, focus on mental toughness. Build a strong mind that doesn’t back down from powering hard on the treadmill or running a bonus flight of stairs. Learn to keep your head focused on where you are and what you’ve achieved, not how much further you have to go.
And remember that each step forward is one step closer.
4. Bulletproof your legs with strength training.
Uphill running draws on power from several different muscle groups, including your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and Achilles tendons. Building strength through exercises that target those muscles, along with increasing agility, will translate to better preparedness once you hit the climb (or descent).
Targets: Glutes, hips, hamstrings, and quads. Also a great pre-run warm-up.
Targets: Lower legs and stabilizer muscles.
Targets: Glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
Targets: Glutes, hips, quads, knees, and stabilizer muscles.
Targets: Glutes, hips, quads, knees, Achilles Tendon, and stabilizer muscles
5. Don’t neglect the downs.
What goes up, must come down. And while blasting down a hill might be a thrill in the moment, it will end up becoming just as taxing on your legs as a trip up the mountain.
So whatever you do, don’t neglect your the downs during training.
When writing a training plan, I always include “downhill days,” or hill runs where the focus is not on powering up but powering down. That builds strength in the quads, strengthens your joints, and teaches you how to run down a mountain in control.
Schedule downhill repeats every few weeks — even if they’re on those same short hills, stairs, or parking garages you have in town — to prepare the legs for a downhill beating.
6. Take strategic weekend trips.
And finally, how do you train for the mountains without any mountains?
You go find mountains.
Brilliant, I know. I’ll pause until the ovation is over …
… … …
But seriously. When possible, schedule a weekend trip to the hills for strategic long runs. Maybe that’s during a peak distance effort in training, or a training race that builds towards your goal race.
Gather your family, friends, or running club, and schedule a run-cation for a big day in the mountains.
When mountains are closer (within a few hours), schedule your longest long runs on those trails.
Flatlanders Conquer Mountains All the Time (And So Can You)
Are you at a disadvantage? Maybe.
Do you need to put in more effort? Probably.
Can you still do it? Absolutely.
Don’t let a lack of hills deter you from chasing a goal race. Train with intention and make it happen.