Running races are almost exclusively set by distance, so it’s no surprise that we also train by distance. A mile is a mile and a kilometer a kilometer, whether you’re running along a flat sandy beach or alpine ridge line.

But I believe we get too caught up in the distance way of thinking.

While a mile is a mile anywhere, the value of that mile is very different depending on your goal.

A flat road mile, for example, is fast, so it’s a great way to work on speed and leg turnover.

A mountain trail mile is slow, but builds massive leg strength and footwork skills.

Depending on your race goal, the value (to your training) of those distinct miles will differ.

Which means that instead of thinking in distance, we’re sometimes better suited to think in other metrics like time or vertical gain.

Why I’m Focusing on Vertical Gain, Not Distance

As you set out to train for a new race or goal, one of the first things you should do is look at the type of training that will help you reach it.

If you’re running the flat Chicago Marathon, your main focus should be road speed and endurance. If you’re goal is the mountainous Speedgoat 50K, road speed should be one of the last things on your mind.

See what I mean?

Let’s take a look at my situation:

I have a few casual races planned for the fall, but my overarching goal is to become a stronger mountain runner. I love running through the mountains, but know there’s still work to be done.

So when I think through how best to lay out my training for the next few months, I have to look at what will best help me reach that goal.

If I train for distance, I know there will be days that I’m tempted to run road routes for efficiency and ease.

If I train for time, I’ll have the same problem, even if I end up running more miles.

Vertical gain, however, requires me to get up and into the mountains, and it requires the type of running that will make me a better mountain runner.

Running for vertical gain means:

  1. Time on the trail, since many of the biggest climbs in my area are on trail not road.
  2. Lots of descending. What goes up must come down, and part of being a strong mountain runner is feeling confident and fast on the descents.
  3. Both distance and time. Building a high vertical number will require a substantial amount of both time and distance by default.
  4. More time spent hiking up hills, which will make me more efficient on major climbs during races.

In other words, by running for a large vertical number, I’m training specifically for my goal.

Focusing on Your Weaknesses

Even the best runners have weaknesses, and most of us know exactly what ours are. They could be …

… just to name a few.

I know that climbing is one of mine. I’m a confident runner on technical flats and descents, but when you put me up against other runners on the climbs, I know I’ll fall behind.

So what do you do when you know your weakness?

Focus, work, and turn it into a strength. Which is exactly what I plan to do to help me reach my goal.

The Value of a Challenge

When I have a problem or want to make a change, my first instinct is to turn to a daily challenge for help.

… I used a 7-day challenge to kick-start going vegan.

… I used a run streak to stay motivated during a busy time in my life.

… I used a push-up challenge to establish a strength routine habit.

Challenges establish a timeline which makes it more approachable, motivation to keep you focused, structure to provide a roadmap, and a measurable goal towards whatever it is you want to work on.

And with a non-measurable goal like “wanting to become a stronger mountain runner” being my current focus, introducing that structure and measurable progress is vital to my success.

So I’ve decided to start a new 4-week challenge.

My 4-Week Vertical Challenge (Will you join me?)

Starting next Monday, July 18th, I’m challenging myself to 40,000 vertical feet in a four week period.

Number of miles. Time length of each run. None of that matters.

I’ll be running exclusively for vertical gain instead of distance.

Right now I average roughly 5,000 feet of gain per week, so this challenge will require me to double that each week. It’s an amount that is sure to be difficult and require a lot of work, but not so much that I can’t do it.

Unfortunately for this challenge (not for me, though), I’ll be at the beach in flat Rhode Island between the third and fourth week, which means I’ll really need to step it up those weeks to make up the gain. That’s just part of the deal.

There’s never a perfect time to tackle a challenge like this, so if you really want to make the change, you have to pull the trigger and go for it.

Will you join me?

Will you join me in setting a vertical challenge for the next four weeks? I could use the company.

It doesn’t have to be 40,000 feet, but instead could be 5,000; 10,000; 50,000; or whatever feels like the right amount for you. Here’s how to get started:

  • Look at your vertical gain numbers from the past six to eight weeks and take the average (Strava is a great tool for this). From there I doubled mine, but choose the right amount that feels challenging without feeling impossible.
  • Set the measurable goal of hitting that number over the course of four weeks. Make sure you’re going after a target number and not just challenging yourself to run more hills.
  • Set weekly target goals to stay on track, but remember the main goal is to hit the number within the four week period. You can always make up some gain if a week falls short.
  • Share your goal on Twitter or Facebook (and tag me), so we can hold each other accountable and check in throughout the challenge.

So what do you say? Are you ready to step your running up (literally) a notch and focus on vertical gain instead of distance?

I hope to see you up there.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

Support Rock Creek Runner by shopping at:


One thought on “Running for Vertical Gain Instead of Distance: A 4-Week, 40,000 Foot Challenge

  1. Although this is a worthy challenge, I think people should be very careful when entering something like this. You cannot just go from a four week average of, say, 40 miles a week with 5,000 feet elevation gain at 9 min/mi pace, to 40 miles a week with 10,000 feet elevation gain at a similar speed (or even somewhat slower). This sounds to me like an injury waiting to happen!

Leave a Reply