Learn how to tweak your training to become a monster climber.
For many, your “A” race might feature challenging hills or an intimidating elevation profile. Are you ready? Even the fastest guys on the flats can’t always translate that leg speed to climbing speed. So how exactly do you go about becoming a better climber?
Famed coach and author of the Training Bible book series, Joe Friel, says training to be a better uphill runner starts in the base phase.
“Base training for the athlete who needs to improve climbing starts with building muscular strength along with aerobic fitness,” Friel says.
To build power, he suggests doing short uphill repeats with long recoveries on a hill and location that is easily repeatable. Keep track of how much distance you cover in a few uphill strides, done at a very high cadence.
“This will reveal, over time, if the athlete is developing power, and therefore covering greater distances,” Friel says.
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Once this basic power is developed, you can move on to the business of improving muscular endurance—how much uphill running your body can handle. This can be built into a specific hill training build phase. For this, Friel suggests hill intervals that are about 5-12 minutes long and done at the runner’s anaerobic threshold. This is an effort level where athletes go from burning mostly fat as fuel to predominantly glycogen—which can feel like red-lining. Friel adds, “A total time of 20-40 minutes in a single session is usually enough for most runners.”
Coach to the ultrarunning stars, Jason Koop, himself a two-time Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run finisher, stresses two concepts to grasp for uphill training: you’ll be running slower (and that’s fine), and your cardiovascular effort will be higher for the same relative power output as on flat level ground (because you are now fighting gravity as well).
“To enhance that specificity of becoming a better climber, you take any standard workout, like tempo, threshold, or VO2 max and simply adapt it to the uphill,” says Koop. He works his athletes through varying intensities depending on the system they are focused on working and uses the general principle of moving from less specific to more specific workloads as the race approaches.
Let’s say you plan to run a mountainous trail marathon at a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 8 out of 10, for instance. Six months out from race day you’d be working at intensities that are higher and lower than 8, like 6 and 10 RPE. In the last block of training, the one closest to your race, you get more specific, performing your climbing intervals at the same effort level as you will be on race day—your 8 out of 10 RPE.
As long as the downhills are done easy, Koop sees athletes’ recovery times between sessions improve when his athletes are focused on uphill training. “This is because there is a less mechanical stress on the muscles,” says Koop. “It’s a paradox, because the cardio effort, oxygen uptake and calories used are all going to be higher, but the physical trauma is less because there is less mechanical stress than on flat ground.”
Faster recovery means more training—but how much? Both coaches agree a beginner-level runner should start with one threshold or VO2 max uphill session a week, with an intermediate-level runner able to handle two, and professionals between three and four. “Dakota Jones, for instance, can handle three, sometimes four, when he’s doing them all uphill,” says Koop.
The last component to consider is stripping your frame of excess weight, while maintaining your power. “Climbing rewards athletes who have bigger cardiovascular engines, specifically when compared to their weight,” says Koop. The same concept of power-to-weight ratio your cycling friends stress over is more pronounced when running uphill because you are adding the vertical propulsion required to ascend the slope.
As with most things training related, we are all individuals. Start conservative and pay attention how you feel day to day. In no time, you’ll be climbing like a monster.