Is it all about the vert?
“It’s all about the vert” is a common catch phrase for those training for hilly ultras. But is doing lots of vertical all you need to do to perform well in an ultra with large amounts of ascent and descent?
With the popularity of training software like Strava it is easy to compare the amount of vert you do each week with others and get swept up in a more is better thought process.
But the whole idea that the more vert you do the better your performance is analogous to the idea that the more running you do the better your performance. Whilst high mileage is a factor most of us agree its what you do with those miles that count just as much if not more as the amount of miles.
So why is vert any different? Surely it is how you get that vert that will have more effect on your race performance than the total amount of vertical.
Is all vertical the same?
Does hiking uphill give you the same training response as running uphill ?
Does running uphill help with your hiking speed uphill?
Does running easy downhill load the legs the same as running fast downhill?
Does running down technical terrain load the legs as much as running down fire-trail?
Does running down fire-trail develop your technical descending skills as much as running technical descents ?
The answer to all of the above is a resounding no .
To work out what kind of vert my athletes should be doing I look at a number of variables
1. How much vert does the race have that they are training for?
The first step is to work out how much vert per 10km the race has. So if a race has 4000m of vert and is 100k long then your long runs should build to at least 400m of vert per 10k
2. Is that vertical spread consistently throughout the race or jammed into one section ?
For example UTMB is basically nothing but climb followed by descent followed by climb for the whole 100 miles whereas Tarawera has a hilly first 60k but flat last 40k . So take this into consideration when figuring out how much vert per 10k you should be aiming for. Tarawera has approx 2400m of vert which over 100k averages out to 240m of vert per 10k but 2000m of that vert comes in the first 60km so your hilly runs should have more like 333m of vert per 10km.
3. What type of vert does the race have ?
Is it steep technical or long gradual fire trails ? Is it likely to be muddy slippery and full of tree roots or sandy and full of rocks? Are their stairs or is it all paths. Road or trail? Your training should reflect the nature of the race as much as possible.
4. What are your strengths and weaknesses relative to the race?
If your technical skills aren’t great and the race has some very technical sections then obviously you need to spend time on technical terrain. But some of us go to far the other way and if the race is mainly very runnable fire trails spending time on technical terrain in training may be fun but its not race specific.
5. Are you planning to hike or run the climbs?
If its a race with very big climbs like UTMB then the majority of runners will spend most of their time hiking uphill so you should spend a fair bit of your training time hiking uphill. If it is made up of lots of shorter climbs that are more runnable then you’ll need to run more in training.
Of course if you want to increase the amount of hills you can run up then you need to train by running up steeper and longer hills
6. How important are the downhill sections?
For a race that starts and finishes in the same spot or at a lower elevation ( eg Western States) the downhill is at least as important if not more important than the uphill. Most of us should be looking to run all the downhills and you can only do this if you have conditioned the legs to handle the greater forces involved in running downhill. Running down a technical hill may be fun but the variable nature of that type of trail and the reduced speed means there is often less load on the legs than a slightly less steep fire trail where you can run down very fast . So even if your race has very technical downhills there may be some value in running some fast non technical descents to load the quads more.
7. Can downhill running help your uphill running?
If your quads are smashed from running fast downhill in a race then doesn’t matter how much uphill work you’ve done you wont be able to put that training to good use.
Hopefully you can see from the above that how you get your vert has a much bigger impact on your performance than simply racking up large amounts of vert .
So how much vertical should you do per week?
There are so many variables that go into this but as a guide – your long run should have the same amount of vert per 10km as your race or maybe a little more, your hill repeats should have more , a faster flatter speed session will have very little and some recovery runs will add some more vert. Overall you should end up on average a little less vert than your race for each 10km of your weekly mileage.
So for example if your race is 100km and has 5000m of vertical and you currently run 80km per week then somewhere around 3000-3500m is enough vertical.
This might be made up of a 40km long run with 2000m of vert , a 90 minute hill repeat session with 750m of vert , a speed session which is flat to undulating and 1-2 easy runs on hilly terrain giving you another 500m of vert.
For more information on the different training sessions have a look at these articles
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