Can Mountain Running Make You Faster?

A growing number of track or road runners are using mountain running to build strength. Photo: Chad Riley for Competitor

There’s nowhere to go but up. 

Chris Lundy had never heard of mountain running before she jumped into a race in Vail, Colo., in 2005 and missed qualifying for the national team by one spot. A few weeks later, now fully informed, she headed to the final qualifying race in New England, won, and has since been on four U.S. teams for the World Mountain Running Championships.

“The great thing is it’s so much fun that it motivates runners who may be burned out on road racing,” said Lundy, a San Francisco area runner.

She believes mountain running has helped build her strength and efficiency, making her faster all-around, as well as given her new goals and reinvigorated her love of running.

Mountain Running—as an official sport—has held a world championship annually since 1985, with 40 countries competing last year, and is governed by the IAAF and the World Mountain Running Association. The world championship alternates each year between a race that is strictly uphill and one that goes down and up. This year the course will be only up.

“Mountain running is defined by a race that has a large amount of vertical ascent,” explained Richard Bolt, the U.S. Mountain Running team manager. That may seem obvious, but it is carefully regulated.

Official mountain running—as opposed to trail or ultra-running, for which there is much overlap—is competed primarily on trails and some roads, over a relatively short distance at only 12-15 kilometers for men and 8-13 kilometers for women. The races also cover around 3,000-3,500 feet of ascent or ascent and descent in that time, so it’s anything but easy. And, it’s getting more competitive.

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“The level of athlete on the national team has come a long way in the past eight years. Many, but not all, people who make the team now are national class or very close to it in their previous sport,” said Lundy.

Although word-of-mouth has started to attract more athletes to the mountain running scene, the main mission of U.S. Mountain Running is to help generate interest at all levels.

“That’s really our greatest challenge, getting athletes to know about us,” said Bolt.

Most elite mountain runners have traditionally come from trail running backgrounds, but there have also been a number of cross-country skiers, who are accustomed to the altitude and the endurance, and a growing number of track or road athletes, who use it to build strength.

Morgan Arritola, who was on the 2010 U.S. Olympic ski team, took third at the 2012 mountain running world championships, leading the American women to a gold medal. And Max King, a former steeplechaser on the track who won the 2011 mountain running world championships, went on to take 19th and a PR at the Olympic marathon trials. King has attributed his improvements to mountain running, said Bolt.

“There’s no downside to uphill mountain racing,” said Bolt, who points out that most coaches send their athletes to run hills anyway in order to build strength and power.

Running downhill, however, can put strain on joints and cause injuries. The races that go up and down can additionally be extra challenging, said Bolt, because the courses typically go in cycles, so a runner runs up and down and up and down again. “It is physiologically really challenging to make those transitions,” he said. “Not all athletes are really durable enough to go through that kind of thing.”

That hasn’t stopped people from trying. The American Trail Running Association, which governs trail running, cross-country, hill climbs, and showshoe races, in addition to mountain races, saw an increase in the number of participants from 90,000 in 2000 to more than 327,000 in 2012.

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Much of the mountain running in the U.S. has traditionally been on the East Coast with races like the Mt. Cranmore Hill Climb and the Mt. Washington Road Race, which Bolt called “the Boston Marathon of mountain races,” and in Colorado, with events like Pike’s Peak Ascent. There is, though, an up-and-coming scene in the Carolinas near Asheville, as well as in California at Squaw Valley and Palm Springs.

“It’s getting to the point now those are becoming destination races,” said Bolt.

While, obviously, mountains are a prerequisite to hosting mountain running races, there are a “smattering” of races in other places around the country, said Bolt, who has started a series of races in Oregon. And, in cities, there’s the urban equivalent: tower racing or stair climbs.

That means there’s no reason not to run up something.

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About The Author:

Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at www.sunnyrunning.com.

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