Are you one of the many runners who finds their inspiration from the mountains, or are targeting a big mountain race this year? Prominent races like Speedgoat 50k, Hardrock 100 Mile, and Georgia Death Race define themselves with serious vertical climbs that are appropriately contrasted by sustained quad-crushing descents. While you might not be going for one of these stacked-field events, flat neighborhood laps are unlikely to get you across the finish line on race day. How much vert is enough? How should you incorporate hills? We’ll cover this and more throughout this post.
How Much Vertical Gain Is Enough In Training?
One school of thought is to try to match the race’s overall gain in your peak week of training, with about half to two-thirds of the gain being across the weekend peak days. While this is not always feasible (i.e. Hardrock 100 is 33,000ft), situationally, it can be a good rule of thumb. Here is a peak week, held 3 to 4 weeks out from race day, as an example:
A runner is targeting a 50 mile with 10,000ft of gain.
Monday: Flat easy aerobic day
Tuesday: Hill repeats, for about 800ft-1000ft of gain
Wednesday: Slightly rolling natural effort mid-distance run, about 300-500ft gain
Thursday: Mountain/hilly sustained effort, for about 2,000ft gain
Friday: Rest day, or short and flat recovery day
Saturday: Hilly peak-day long run, about 4,000ft gain
Sunday: Rolling recovery run, mid distance, about 2,500ft
A good hill training block is usually about 4-6 weeks long and incorporates a variety of climbing exercises and total feet gain per workout. Throughout those weeks (which may not necessarily be the peak week going into the race), it may be common for a runner to see between 50-80% of the total race day elevation gain spread throughout the week as this body system is built.
For those races with extreme vertical gain, becoming comfortable with the training block above can ensure readiness for race day. You will be able to feel your body become faster and more agile on hills as you train on them. Another way of measuring hill fitness is to gauge your feel after climbing an equivalent of the race’s crux. For example, Wasatch 100 Mile has a couple of climbs that are roughly 4,000ft bottom to top. If you climb and descend 4,000ft on legs that have been going for a couple of hours before that, how are you feeling? It wont be a walk in the park, but, if you were mentally and physically able to pull off a long climb and long day on your feet during peak week, it is probably a good sign.
Incorporating Hills Into Training
This style of workout is often done for long runs and helps to build your aerobic capacity and overall leg strength. It involves hiking or running a mountain or long grade, generally at an aerobic/conversational effort.
A good mid week workout. Shorter, harder repeats help to improve your heart’s stroke volume (how much blood you can pump in one beat) and your neuromuscular system function  . Longer, moderately hard repeats are good for improving VO2 max.Hill repeats can vary in grade (sometimes within the same workout), speed, time spent climbing, and type of recovery between (i.e. downhill recovery, or continue hiking uphill recovery). Starting out, a 8-10% grade hill might be a good place for 4-6 repeats between 45-60 seconds. As training progresses, you can adjust steepness and/or length and/or volume.
Another mid week workout option. This type of workout involves a steady effort, perhaps at high aerobic effort, across rolling terrain. For example, an athlete in Boulder, CO might choose to run moderately hard for 25 minutes along the famed Chautauqua Park’s Mesa Trail, encountering both uphill and downhill twists and turns and different levels of technicality.
Literally meaning speed play, this can be another mid week workout, or potentially a recovery instrument. This workout is done by picking something to run to, (i.e. that big pine tree halfway up the hill) and turning up the pace until you get there. Fartlek repeats aren’t usually longer than 30-45 seconds, as this type of workout is more meant to fire different gears than to sustain an effort.
Often overlooked, but extremely important. This might be a full day off, which is absolutely okay, a very reduced effort day, or a different type of activity such as cycling. Most athletes have at least one recovery day per week, while athletes with deeper bases might have one per ten days or two weeks depending on where they are at in a training cycle. For more on recovery, check this out.
When it comes to elevation change, the uphill is usually top of mind. It is important not to forget Isaac Newton’s rule of “what goes up must come down”, which is true for a vast majority of trail races. (Hate going down? Pikes Peak Ascent might be a consideration for you…) It is also possible to add downhill training to your routine!
Training for downhills can be accomplished by hiking up a steep (and safely runnable) grade for 3-5 minutes and then running down quickly but controlled, thereby activating those “brake” muscles and your braking technique. The goal of this type of workout isn’t necessarily to be breathing hard, but to build both the strength and the muscle memory to do downhills efficiently. Things like rocks on the trail and varying grades of steepness are all things our brains have to compute for each step. (This link between the muscles and the brain is considered the neuromuscular system.) The more your brain and muscles work to do these computations for different trail scenarios, the quicker you get at it, therefore becoming physically quicker on your descents. Doing 3-5 repeats and gradually adding to this over a few months could help you be ready for both the ups and downs come race day.