How to train for the mountains when you live on the flat

Trail and ultra races in the mountains are growing in popularity. The challenge of the massive climbs and descents, the stunning views and the chance to connect with nature at its most spectacular are powerful draws. But many of us also live in places where there is very little in the way of elevation. So how can we go about training effectively for races with lots of vertical.

If you have no hills at all then the next best option is stairs. Even if its only a few flights, lots of reps of stairs will train your legs to climb more effectively. You can vary between hiking up and running up 1 or 2 stairs at a time depending on whether you are trying to train endurance , anaerobic threshold, Vo2max or strength.
For endurance on long steep climbs building up to 60 minutes of hiking up 2 at a time is a very effective session. Once 60 minutes feels comfortable adding a weight by wearing a weighted back pack between 5-10kg will take the intensity up a notch.

For a higher intensity workout running up stairs 1 or 2 at a time is very effective. Depending on how much running you plan to do in your race will determine how much running you do up the stairs. If you plan to hike anything that looks like a hill then stick to hiking . If you’d like to run up some of the hills then adding in some running reps will benefit on race day.

Concrete stairs are completely uniform unlike climbing on trails. One way to get around this uniformity is vary your foot position as you climb , sometimes slightly turned in or slightly turned out, stepping wider on the step or even across in front of the other leg.

Example workouts

2 x 15 minutes of hiking up 2 at a time easy back down building up to 60 minutes non stop

20 minutes at a hard but sustainable pace – alternating between hiking up 2 at a time and running up 1 at a time . building up to 3 x 20 minutes with a 2 minute recovery

5-7 minutes running up 2 at a time easy back down x 4-5 reps

3 x 20 minutes hiking up 2 at a time wearing a weighted pack 5-10kg
Easy 2-3 minute recovery between sets

NOTE the time referred to includes the ascent and descent – seems obvious if your stairs only last a few minutes but not so obvious if you have access to a 40 storey apartment block!

Going down stairs whilst it does load the legs does so in a different way to running downhill. Downhill your stride length is controlled by you whereas going down stairs your stride length is controlled by the stairs and is usually very short more similar to descending a very steep technical hill than a more runnable hill. Descending stairs quickly requires very fast leg speed , strong quads and excellent foot placement. skills that are very transferrable to those steep technical descents. Running with any kind of speed down stairs comes with risk , fall over and you’ll do some damage so must be approached with caution. Start easy on the downs and as co-ordination improves you can start to increase the down speed but be very cautious as you tire.

The higher the intensity on the way up the easier you should approach the downs as co-ordnation is reduced on very fatigued legs.

To get over the imitation of very short strides that stairs have speed work is very beneficial. The extra load that running fast puts on the legs and the higher cadence used when running fast can help prepare the legs for fast runnable downhills. Make sure you include a regular speed work session as part of your training.

Treadmill Training

If you have access to a treadmill you can at least train for the uphill. For races with long climbs setting the treadmill at the highest grade it will go and hiking as fast as you can for 1-3 hours will really pay off come race day on long climbs. For races with a more undulating route or runnable hills doing intervals – both hiking and running intervals mixed up with flatter running will help.

I’ve written in detail about hill training here and this can be applied to treadmill running as well.

Pulling an object
If you have no stairs then another option is dragging a heavy object behind you – e.g. a tyre
Doing this will put your body in a similar position to hiking up a steep hill – i.e. leaning forward and using your hands to help drive off your legs – the heavier the object the more you will lean forward much the same as the steeper the hill the more you lean forward. This can be a very effective way to train for long steep climbs. Of course there are no downhills when pulling a tyre so you will need to supplement this form of training with speed work or plyometric work to get the legs used to the eccentric loading muscles experience when running downhill.

Example sessions
Time and weight pulled are the two variables you can manipulate . I would build up to around 60 minutes of pulling split into 10-30 minute efforts depending on the types of hills your race has. If it has lots of shorter hills then do shorter reps faster , if it has very long climbs then do longer reps. Increase the weight once 60 minutes feel comfortable.

Strength Training
If the thought of strapping a belt to your waist and pulling a tyre around the streets isn’t something that excites you then strength training is a great alternative.

Exercises like 1 leg squats, lunges and walking lunges are all great for building strength. To make it specific to hiking uphill you’ll need to keep the weight light and do lots of repetitions e.g. 2-3 sets of 15-25+ reps

Some may argue that your strength training should be heavy but remember the reason for doing this is to improve your ability to hike up steep long climbs. You don’t get that from doing 10 rep max squats in the gym.

Plyometric Training
Whilst the strength type exercises mentioned above are great for helping with your climbing a better way to develop the eccentric strength required to run downhill well over a long period of time is plyometric training. Any exercise that involves a landing force such as box jumps, jump lunges , 1 leg squat jumps, jumping and hopping or similar will help prepare the legs for the large amount of eccentric load they have to deal with in a hilly race. Again the focus is on higher reps . It doesn’t matter if you can jump off a 5 foot high step once – better jumping up and down off a 1 foot high step many times. Be warned this kind of training is more stressful on the body (just like downhill running is) and needs to be built up slowly.

Speed training
Running faster places more load on the legs so has some very transferrable training benefits for climbing.

For the more elite who run some or all of the climbs the ability to run up steep hills has a strong correlation to your VO2max which you can develop through speed training. I’ve talked about speed training for ultra runners here

Hill repeats
Whilst many of the place we live may not have much in the way of hills – its rare to find a place that doesn’t have some kind of hill. A hill of even 30-60 seconds is worthwhile training on – of course to get any benefit you’ll need to do a LOT of repetitions but if you can its very worthwhile.

The main problems is with stairs, speed, and strength , plyometric work none of it is exactly like running downhill. Coping with the downhills should be a much higher priority than coping with the uphills as far more damage occurs on the downs. So if all you have is a 60 second hill then use it. I have written about hill training here.

Be warned you need to be very mentally focussed . I remember doing well over 100 reps of a 90 second hill I had access to when I was training for UTMB. Four hours seemed to take days but the hard work was rewarded on race day when I passed hundreds of people running downhill late in the race.

Putting it all together

If you can include a speed session , a stair session and a strength session in each week you will be be well prepared when it comes to a hilly race. If you have any kind of hill no matter how small use it and get used to doing lots of reps. Keep in mind that all those forms of training are demanding on the body and you’ll need to progress slowly to allow the muscles and tendons time to adapt.