Some of you may have been inspired to consider venturing to the hills by coverage of the recent World Mountain and Trail Running Championships from Austria. One of our NLC Team Coaches: Matt Long considers a three tier approach to how you make train to make such a transition.
NEW LEVELS COACH MATT LONG EXPLORES NINE WAYS TO DIVERSIFY
YOUR ASSAULT ON THE SUMMIT
The recent 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships (WMTRC) took
place in Innsbruck and Stubai in early June and received high profile coverage in the
athletics media. Those considering either a transition to this mode of competition or a
mere diversification in terms of adding it to their periodised plan of competition would
be best to have an extensive background over cross country training and racing so
that their strength endurance has a firm grounding before considering a move.
Before jumping feet first into mountain running, its best to consider the notion of
‘bridging’, or namely undertaking work which can act as a walkway between the
aforementioned cross country and the demands of the mountain peaks.
In terms of training, you need to habituate steady aerobically dominant runs over
undulating ground, preferably over the trails and country. This helps build the base
layer of the proverbial cake and makes you more robust to undertake the demands
of more formalised modes of session.
The following are some of the more specific ways in which successful international
mountain runners have undertaken mountain specific work. We start by building a
solid foundational in terms of aerobic and strength endurance. After all the wider the
base of any pyramid, the higher the peak.
The Aerobic and Strength Endurance base of the pyramid
- Mountain hiking
Runners often overlook the fact that walking is an aerobically developmental activity
and mountain hiking was a routine feature of the training microcycle of 2009 World
Mountain Champion and three-time silver medallist Valentina Belotti. There is
absolutely no reason why your walking, whether it be on the hills or flat cannot be
recorded as training mileage. Often people mistakenly point to the ‘low milage’
undertaken by the first man to run a sub 4 minute mile, Sir Roger Bannister, but they
all too often overlook the amount of walking he did in the countryside at weekends to
complement the more lactate based sessions he famously undertook on the track
during his half hour lunch break as a young medial student in the 1950s.
- Kenyan hills
Many of you will have undertaken Kenyan hills to prepare for cross country running.
Unlike hill repetitions which involve sprints uphill and jog or walkdown, this type of
session involves a faster ‘float’ downhill recovery, meaning that the uphill cannot be
sprinted but has to be surged. Kenyan hills tend to imply continuity of effort if not
pace uphill and downhill. Often Kenyan hills are undertaken on a relatively ‘shallow’
hill but when one increases the severity of the incline then habituation for the
demands of the mountains will occur.
Changing gears- dipping into the lactate system
When you have built that aerobic and strength endurance base, you are ready to
begin to think about speed endurance which brings the lactate energy system into
- Hilly structured fartlek
Gosta Holmer intended the original notion of ‘speed play’ to be intuitive, improvised
and inherently playful. Many of you will routinely effect a form of the fartlek. In
moving from the unstructured to more structured variants over the hills, five- time
world champion Marco De Gasperi would typically undertake 2 sets of 5 mins hard, 3
mins steady, 4 mins hard, 3 mins steady, 3mins hard, 2 mins steady, 2 mins hard, 2
mins steady, 1 min hard, 1 min stead on a course which involved flat – climb – flat –
- Triangular fartlek
The triangular fartlek once again leans towards the more structured variant of speed
play but unlike the hilly structured fartlek which is driven by time, this mode of
session tends to be dictated by the gradient which as its name suggests is threefold.
Emanuele Manzi, for example, who took a World Silver back in 2001 in Arta Terme
would for instance effect a 1km hard – climb, 1km steady – descent, 1km hard- flat,
1km steady- climb, 1km fast -descent, 1km steady- flat.
- Hilly Progression Run
This is a continuous mode of session and when effected on the flat it ordinarily sees
the athlete run incrementally faster each kilometre or mile. Whilst still a session
which has enormous value in terms of the training effect which can be induced by
working athletes across a range of differential aerobic paces, the key difference with
a hilly progression run is that its best to progress the run by effort (for example on a
Bord scale of 1-10) rather than pace, precisely because of the hilly nature of the
terrain. So you have to learn to forget the stopwatch split and embrace the more
qualitative practice of running to feel. This session was a favourite of 2016 European
Mountain Running silver medallist, Martin Dematteis.
Event Specific Sessions
So you have laid a solid aerobic and strength endurance base and began to diversify
your work with speed endurance. Now its time to think about making your work more
event specific for race day.
- Uphill differential repetitions
We all know that repetition training involves relatively short, intense periods of work
interspersed with bouts of rest. If you are planning an uphill only assault on the
mountains, there is no reason why simple uphill reps cannot be undertaken off a
passive recovery which would involve walking. This being said, the aforementioned
Belotti would undertake differential uphill repetitions which would involve variance of
two paces before recovery eg. 10x 1’ hard up, 2’ slow uphill recovery. Whilst the
Italian was known to take a cable car down downhill, you will have to improvise and if
working with a coach you could try what Sebastian and coach Peter Coe did back in
the 1980s when Coe senior would drive his two time Olympic 1500m champion
downhills in his car to start the next rep.
- Uphill pyramids
Pyramid work typically involves running at for differential lengths of duration
measured in distance or time in order that one can run at varying paces. In many
ways it has a progressive and regressive element but tends to be discontinuous
because unlike a progression run, rest is taken in between efforts. An athlete who
adapted the conventional pyramid to make it an uphill version was former Team GB
international Sarah Tunstall who typically effected 4 sets x 3 min, 2 min, 1 min.
- Uphill and downhill intervals
If you are planning to race on an uphill-downhill course then this session is great in
terms of habituation. The previously mentioned Dematteis had a favourite session,
for example of 4 x 7 mins uphill with a fast descent.
- Downhill ‘first’ intervals
As with the above, this is a session designed to prime one for the specific demands
of a race which begins on the decline, which is a rarity. Team GB’s Georgia Malir for
instance would effect a session grouped into sets where she started running fast
downhill, then did 3x2min uphill – fast back down, 1min uphill – fast back down, 2min
The above leaves us with the following questions for self-reflection:
- How do I intend to bridge from track, road or cross country running to the
demands of the mountains?
- What modes of session can I undertake to build the aerobic and strength base of
my training pyramid?
- Why might some modes of hill based fartlek and progression runs build event
specific speed endurnce for the mountains?
- When would it be pertinent to undertake event specific simulation style sessions?
Crucially, Anne Buckley, who manages our international teams over the mountains
says that, “You don’t have to live in the mountains to compete successfully as a
mountain runner. Some mountain runners use a treadmill then spend some of their
weekends and holidays in the hills and mountains”.
New Levels Coach Matt Long has coached an athlete to become a world junior
mountain running champion in 2022 He credits the input of Anne Buckley with
the development of this article.