The how-to guide to mountain run training!

4. April 2018

All is quiet in the west. Nothing to report in the south, east, and north of your running territory either. Along the few different running routes that you regularly get through, you are running in autopilot mode. Although you know that a little variety in day-to-day running would not only improve your form, but also be a welcome boost to your motivation. So how about a new training and competition goal – for example a mountain run? 

Sounds mystical – and so it is: The summit is the goal! Enjoy fantastic views along spectacular runs. Achieve new feats, not just against yourself, but also against gravity. Runs amid majestic mountain landscapes. 

But such a mountain run does not only open up entirely new perspectives, but also requires a few basic considerations as to how to tackle the new adventure. Because anyone who has run up a hill before during training will have noticed: A few metres of altitude are not just literally breath-taking but are very demanding on your calves and Achilles tendon. And also the muscles in your buttocks are more strained going uphill than on level ground, because your foot, similar to climbing stairs, needs to be lifted up higher than with normal running. Because your upper body is bent further forwards than when running on level ground, your back muscles are also stretched and strained, as well as your arm and shoulder muscles through the more active pendulum and compensating movement. Across all involved muscles, mountain running boasts holistic muscle training which you need to approach cautiously.

Your head comes along for the run

And special demands are placed on your mind as well in this sport. If it is only slightly uphill, your pulse accelerates to unimagined heights. In mental terms, you need to prepare for completely new conditions as a mountain runner, because your pulse is constantly beating in its maximum ranges and you cannot easily adjust by reducing the pace. Your running speed is considerably lower than on flat terrain, and the advantage is: you do not need to set yourself specific kilometre times in advance.

From a psychological point of view, mountain runs have another major advantage: the view! Each time, this gives you a feeling of grandeur and the certainty of having achieved something special. The journey is the destination!




Specific mountain run training?

But what is mountain run training like? It is important as a mountain or regular runner that you keep the most (at least 50-70% depending on the training phase) of your training within the range of basic endurance, i.e. with a calm pulse. If you aim for a mountain run as your season goal, you can keep most of your running sessions so far unchanged. Mountain runners, as well as any other runners, primarily train their basic endurance. And this is best done on level ground. In other words: if you want to speed up the mountain quickly, you need to train a lot in the valley. 

There are some specific training variants tailored especially to future mountain runners and that should be adjusted to your individual route specifications, depending on your season goal. First, you need to differentiate between mountain runs, which end up on top of the mountain, and trail runs, which involve many meters of ascent but also include a lot of downhill stretches. For mountain runs with downhill passages, running downhill must be trained specifically in advance, because the eccentric muscle strain caused by running downhill causes severe sore muscles when not practised regularly.

Pure uphill runs are easier to plan. For example, if the Jungfrau Marathon is your goal, you should best add a one-hour “speed hike” up a steep hill or mountain to your regular one- or two-hour runs, as this is required later on in the Bern Oberland. Or you can ride your bike to the next mountain and then run up to the peak. Ideally you might plan the session such that a train brings you back down into the valley.

The uphill running can be integrated into the general training process with the following sample training:

Sample training 1: speed variation in hilly terrain

  • Run of around 30-60 min. in alternating terrain.
  • The key feature of this fartlek session is that your running pace changes more frequently. 
  • If possible, run the intense sections (pulse around 80-90% of your maximum heart rate [MHR]) uphill. Here, you determine yourself when and how often you run at what intensity and how long you want to keep the pace. However, it should not permanently be the same intensity. 
  • The easiest way is to use terrain landmarks as an aid, like a small hill, a sign or a tree. Increase your pace until you have reached the landmark and then take it easier again until you see the next one.
  • The intense sections should not last longer than 5 minutes. And overall, you should run intensively less than half of your entire running time. 

Sample training 2: Speed runs on the mountain

  • Several runs of a maximum of 6 minutes at a moderate gradient (around 4-8%).
  • Run a distance of around 500-1000 m at a high pace (not maximum strain!).
  • Your pulse should be at approximately 85-95% of your maximum heart rate, i.e. roughly the anaerobic threshold. 
  • With a distance of around 500 m, do 6-8 repetitions, and with a distance of 1000 m, do 3-5 repetitions. 
  • Use the deliberately slow downhill run back to the starting point as an active break. The duration of the break should be at least as long as the duration of the physical strain (and preferably longer). 

Sample training 3: Mountain sprints

  • Several runs of max. 30-45 seconds duration at a slightly greater incline (around 8-15%).
  • The route length is around 100-200 m.
  • At the end of the run, your pulse should be at about 90-95% of your MHR, i.e. in the anaerobic range.
  • With a distance of around 100 m, do 10-15 repetitions, and with a distance of around 200 m, do 6-8 repetitions. 
  • Here too: Use the deliberately slow downhill run back to the starting point as an active break. The duration of the break should be at least as long as the duration of the physical strain, and preferably longer. As a rough benchmark, your pulse at the end of the break should be under 120-130 beats per minute. 
  • Even if it gets tough at the end, you should run the last interval in such a way that it does not exhausts your entire strength reserves. You should still be able to (or feel like you could) add another interval. 




If you happen to be in Holland on holiday or there are really no hills in your vicinity, then you have three possible alternatives for mountain run training: 

  • You can simulate the aforementioned training variants indoors on a treadmill with an adjustable angle of inclination. 
  • You can look for a tall building with a freely accessible stairwell and do your training there.
  • Or you can find a long staircase somewhere outside (e.g. in a football stadium). The staircase should be long enough to allow 1-3 minutes of exercise in one go. And by the way: staircase runs are easy to simulate on the stepper at your fitness centre, and that way you also spare yourself the way downhill.  

And don't forget. Not only the mountain runs themselves, but also the mountain run training puts increased strain on your calves and Achilles tendon, so include regular stretching of the “mountain run muscles” in your everyday training!

This is how you plan a mountain run!

  • Inspect the route profile: In preparing for mountain runs, there are some fundamental differences compared to flat city runs. Knowledge of the route profile is of extreme importance! Obtain this information from the organisers as early on as possible (often can be found on the event homepage). The distribution of steep and flat sections on the route is of particular interest. On shorter mountain runs as well as mountain marathons, the last section is very often the steepest. At the Jungfrau Marathon, for example, the first half up to Lauterbrunnen is basically a flat half-marathon – but then a steep uphill half-marathon follows.
  • Adapt your training preparation to meet the requirements: Adjust or supplement our previous sample training sessions so that the contents suit your target competition. Rule of thumb: Every week, adapt one training session specifically to the expected requirements. In the case of short, steep mountain runs, also simulate the steepness in advance in the course of your training. And in the case of alternating trails with downhill passages, also integrate downhill running into your training.
  • Warm up well: Careful warm-up is even more important than for other competitions: Do a warm-up run for at least 15-25 minutes, also include uphill runs and stretch your calf muscles, especially if they are going to be very strained just shortly after the start of the race. 
  • Adjust the length of your stride: Selecting a proper stride length can help you save energy. Rule of thumb: The steeper it gets, the smaller the length of your strides should be. On gradients above 20%, it may be more efficient to walk. With an efficient walking technique, you won’t lose any ground (or only marginally) compared to those still running, but you will prevent your muscles from over acidifying. 
  • Caution downhill: Downhill passages should be approached especially carefully. Unfortunately, the increased adrenaline in your body and thus increased appetite for risk do not reduce the danger of twisting your ankle. Run downhill with short, active steps and high step frequency. Give the trail your full concentration – even if the panorama is appealing. 
  • Create a schedule: In order to devise a proper schedule for the competition, you should be able to roughly estimate how long you need for the individual sections of the route. Since this depends particularly on the altitude difference and ground, it is difficult to devise a universal formula. However, a rough rule of thumb can help: compared with running on flat terrain, running 100 metres difference in altitude corresponds to an additional distance of about 600 to 700 metres. One example: if in a mountain run you cover a distance of 1000 metres and climb 100 metres difference in altitude, then you can take the time that you would need to run around 1600 to 1700 metres on flat terrain as your approximate running time. Or in other words: multiply your average time to run one kilometre by a factor of 1.6 or 1.7 for such passages.
  • Drink plenty: Depending on the length of the run, you must receive adequate energy intake through liquid and gels or bars. If necessary, bring your own stock if the food posts are far apart.
  • Put on warm clothes when you get to the finish: Don’t forget in the euphoria of passing the finishing line and the probably overwhelming beauty of the panorama that your body is quite exhausted and now primarily needs warmth, fluids, and rest. Therefore, make sure that you have warm, dry clothes to hand in the finish area. For this purpose, most of the organisers organise for your clothes to be transported to the finish area. 
  • Fill up your reserves: Just like for the races on flat terrain, make sure you drink enough fluids right after the competition, and also quickly replenish your carbohydrate reserves (fluids or solid food), so as to ensure rapid regeneration.