There I was, clawing my way up the biggest incline of my first 50K. My calves and quads burned and screamed as I dug deep, powering myself to the peak. Pretty exciting stuff, right? I suppose I should also reveal that peak in question was an 80-foot hill, and my first 50K had a whopping 5,600 feet of elevation gain. Ugh. Almost bested by the rolling foothills of Ohio. I finished with a respectable time, but the new fatigues in my legs got me thinking; training on the flat roads and trails near my Florida home had done me no favors in preparing me for even the mildest of elevation. How could I take it to the next level? Is it possible for a flatlander like myself to adequately train for something even bolder? The short answer is “yes” though there are many approaches to it.
The group I run with is pretty diverse. So when seeing how people are preparing for upcoming races, I see a wide variety of techniques being used, and I’m always interested to see how those techniques translate into real race scenario success. They most often do translate into a winning strategy, and while everyone has their own training regimen specific to them, one common factor seems consistent: those who use ANY training method beyond running on flat ground have a much higher success rate in races with elevation gain. What are these techniques?
I should first say that I’m not a doctor or a trainer. I’m a fairly newbie runner looking for answers and paths to success like most of us are. When starting a new training plan, consult your physician and all that good stuff. No one likes being sidelined with an injury, and abruptly starting some of these techniques is an open invitation for an overuse injury. I can tell you this from personal experience. Do your research, know your limits, listen to your body. All that said, let’s get started!
Find a hill. Sounds easy enough, right? What better way to practice for running on hills than running on hills? In south Florida, hills are something of a rarity. The few we do have are hot spots for trail runners. A favorite in the area is a landfill lovingly regarded as “the dump”. A two and a half mile trail snaking its way around the entire hill offering short bursts of inclines and descents. It’s a great workout to hone the new muscle groups and ranges of motion needed for climbing. Even short rolling hills can be useful when done in repeats. You don’t have to find your own mountain to adequately prepare for mountain racing.
Another favorite technique used by fellow flatlanders is bridge repeats. Some of the bridges that span the intracoastal waterway in southeast Florida are arched; long and low on the ends and high in the middle. Running the entirety of these bridges offers a great uphill workout immediately followed by a descent. Many runners I know use these religiously as part of their weekly routine. Some add in resistance training, dragging tires or sleds on short runs to further develop leg and core strength. Even something as simple as incline treadmill running or stair repeats will offer a benefit as part of a training routine.
If you’re planning a race with high elevation, you’ll be faced with a new challenge: altitude. South Florida is a whopping 17 feet above sea level. We have tons of oxygen down here. But once you get near and above 5,000 to 8,000 feet of elevation, low air pressure, and reduced oxygen levels are a real threat, not just to race performance, but potentially life-threatening altitude sickness.
Local runner Matt Mahoney, whose resume spanning 30 years includes multiple Hardrock 100 and Leadville 100 finishes, says one key thing is crucial to racing at altitude: acclimation. The more, the better. How well and how quickly you acclimate varies from person to person. When planning a race at altitude, allow for as much time as possible beforehand to go out and acclimate, as little as several days and as much as several weeks. The extra time spent allowing your body to prepare will be a crucial key to having a successful race. Matt’s varied and rigorous training routine also illustrates there is no singular technique to take the place of just being generally physically fit and having a variety of cross-training techniques in your training arsenal.
Matt’s mountain training routine includes interval running. “Mostly you have to train for the downhills. If you don’t have hills the best substitute is interval running. It’s like downhill speed with uphill effort.” I echo the importance of that just from the experience I’ve had. As much fun as it was to bomb the downhills at a six-minute mile, my body had rarely, if ever, experienced that kind of effort on flat ground and was unprepared for the new stresses put on my legs and aerobic engine.
I have a new found appreciation for mountain running, and as I eye my first 100-mile race this summer, I have a lot of new information to help me train properly and sufficiently to conquer new ground. What techniques do you use?