Training for the mountains and living in the lowlands

Fresh after a move to Amsterdam in 2018, I was gearing up for the Montreux trail festival

MXSKY race. The only thing dampening my excitement and enthusiasm was some concerns over how I would actually manage to prepare appropriately given the course profile of the race (34.4km, 2500m elevation gain, 3319m elevation loss) and well-known flat nature of Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general. Having now lived here for a few years, I have refined my approach to this preparation over multiple training plans for different trail races with similarly significant elevation profiles, it is nowhere near perfected, but it allows some fairly good racing as was the case for me at the Eiger 51km in 2019.

Usually when coaching someone or preparing for something like this myself I would advocate at least a weekly long run, on trails with significant elevation in the run. Failing that at least one hilly run or hills session a week, which should include some downhill running (given this eccentric loading can be a big challenge if you are not prepared for it and is at times the limiting factor in performance particularly for steeper and longer races).

So how does one prepare for a race like this without these luxuries?

Yes, you can find a big building and run up and down the stairs, or a parking structure and do similar with the ramps. If doing this; make sure you are managing some downstairs or down ramp running too and build up slowly (the downs particularly). One to two sessions of ~5-10km of this running a week should be enough to give you most of the adaptation you are after, provided you are training enough around it. The reality is that even this is a bit of a luxury for most or at least not a possibility. This was indeed the situation I was and am in.

My preparation for these types of events now includes the following;

An initial period of preparation where load is built, building to a high running load with a significant load in the gym. Then slightly reducing this total load and replacing some running sessions with the stairmaster sessions below and altering the gym program from the initial exercises into the more eccentrically biased movements. Total load can then be increased slowly again if desired. Much of this is training history and timeline/periodisation dependent.

To prepare for the uphills I usually advocate two sessions of 30-60mins a week on the stairmaster in the gym. Key things to focus on are a variety of speeds and stair heights (1, 2, 3 at a time) to simulate uphill hiking on trail as best as possible.

I have previously done some uphill running on the treadmill and would advise this if there is a lot of gradual, runnable uphill but if the race is steep enough, I would skip the treadmill for a few reasons. Namely the stairmaster is more similar to hiking uphill, doesn’t have a belt driving it and forces inefficient gait patterns which is more similar to what will be experienced on trail.

Likewise, I have done some hill running (up and down) on some small hills I can find in Amsterdam but have found this frustrating and perhaps not as effective as hoped given the hills are not particularly steep, so the desired effects are not quite there for steep trail races (though, as with the treadmill, on more runnable uphills in races these are very helpful).

With regards to strength training, two to three gym sessions a week aimed at strength initially is the start point for the load building phase. These should focus on lower body, vertical plane-based movements (think; squats, step ups etc). This usually then transitions into a more eccentrically biased tempo to improve eccentric muscle damage tolerance and finally into some landings from low and then increasing heights of box or stairs as tolerated. An example of this may be front squats into slow eccentric front squats and then landings from 1-2 steps. It could also look like the same progression with a unilateral focus; Bulgarian split squats into eccentrically biasing these and landing on 2 feet initially and maybe a progression into single lag landings. *NOTE these landings are quite advanced in terms of strength requirements, the risk associated to these can be reduced by adding in small amounts, over a longer period of time and reducing running load when these are started.

In addition to the gym work mentioned, depending on injury history, weaknesses and other factors, some extra work may be warranted to improve hip and knee stability given the trail race upcoming. I tend to favour single leg standing abductions and adductions with pulleys or bands as they have been successful in improving the standing limb’s stability whilst really stressing the strength of the non-standing limb. Similarly, other maintenance or strength work may be warranted, including things like upper body work for potential hiking pole use.

As mentioned, this approach continues to be refined though has seen some good success for both myself and athletes I coach over the years. My efforts in Montreaux were quite painful given I was under prepared for the eccentric loading of all the steep downhill, but I found that I was in much better shape after the Eiger, running two days later without any issues.

If this sound great and you want to experience it, join one of our trail running trips!

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