Work It Out: High-altitude mountain running
2015 Colorado high-altitude races
Aug. 1 — Hunky Dory Half Marathon, Breckenridge
Aug. 8 — Mount Sneffels Marathon, Ouray
Aug. 22 — Leadville 100 Run, Leadville (sold out)
Aug. 23 — 10K at 10,000 Feet, Vail
Tell a runner to slow down and they’ll probably never listen to your advice again.
But that’s exactly what local endurance coach Joe Howdyshell tells runners who want to move from mellow, low-lying trails to scrambling over high-altitude singletrack.
“It’s all about burying your ego for a little bit and going slower,” says Howdyshell, a longtime trail and Nordic athlete who started mountain running last summer. “That might mean walking a steep section or jogging instead of running. You just have to embrace going slower right off the bat.”
For newcomers, mountain running is trail running’s bigger, badder, burlier older brother. It trades mileage for vertical feet, effectively flipping the standard measure for running on its head. Distance is no longer the goal — it’s all about huffing several thousand feet straight up the side of a mountain.
And, as Howdyshell tells his clients, the best way to transition from the familiar to the unknown is with new training habits.
“Another key when you’re trading trail running or road running for mountain running is to throw distance out the window,” Howdyshell says. “Don’t push your pace too much. The mountain will bite you back.”
Endurance athletes swear by a mix of three workouts: long distances, short distances and intervals. Mountain running is no different, as long as the route is tailored to the style of running.
“If you can get those workouts in on steep terrain, you can get very good, very quickly,” Howdyshell says. Just three workouts per week is a perfect entry point for anyone.
Before any run, he begins with 10-15 minutes of easy jogging on level ground to warm his legs and find a comfortable heart rate. In general, he shies away from gym workouts because equipment like treadmills and indoor tracks can’t replicate the kind of unpredictable terrain you’ll encounter on a high-alpine run.
When the weather is nasty, Howdyshell pairs a brief core workout (think planks and bicycle crunches) with running on a treadmill set at the highest possible incline. But the endurance game is a grueling one and, when he has a day to rest, he takes it.
“I like to keep the hard days hard and the easy days easy,” Howdyshell says. “If I have a lot of stuff happening in a day — a day when I have work and a ton of other engagements — I will go with a hard workout then, get out early and finish it. I save the easy workouts for my days off.”
Day 1, long run — Peak One (3,665 vertical feet)
Again, “long” doesn’t refer to mileage with mountain running. Instead, begin with a route of any distance that covers 1,000-1,500 vertical feet, with plenty of steep and rocky sections. The goal here is stamina and endurance, not speed.
When you first begin, Howdyshell says you shouldn’t be ashamed to mix running with fast hiking. But here’s the rub: Push yourself from start to finish. If you walk for 10 seconds, start running immediately after and hold pace for at least a 1-2 minutes.
“Anytime that you move from hiking to running, it can be a painful transition,” Howdyshell said. “The more you practice it, the less painful it gets. This isn’t about getting faster at the moment — it’s about getting past the mental block.”
After you’re comfortable on a long run, bump the vertical feet by 10 percent each week. If that’s too easy, bump it by 20 percent the next week. If that’s too tough, bump it by just 5 percent.
One of Howdyshell’s favorite long routes is right in his backyard: Peak One. He begins at the Mount Royal trailhead on Second Avenue in Frisco and runs 3 miles one way to the summit of Peak One, gaining 3,665 vertical feet along the way.
“That one is a really good way to get practice on very, very steep sections,” Howdyshell says. “It’s just always a good idea to be aware of how your body is handling the change.”
Days 2 and 4, short run — Mount Royal (1,477 feet)
The second workout of your week is a short run. When mileage isn’t a factor, the easiest way to gauge “short” is by cutting the vertical for your long run in half. If your long run is 1,500 vertical, shoot for 700-800 vertical to begin.
The goals here are speed, strength and power, not stamina. Keep the hiking to a minimum and push close to your anaerobic threshold, or roughly 80-90 percent of the fastest you can run.
After you find a groove, increase the vertical by 10 percent every few weeks. But Howdyshell recommends keeping the short run relatively static. Mount Royal (1.7 miles at the start of the Peak One trail) is his go-to route, and he can now run it in less than 20 minutes. It’s key for race training: the faster you can run the same short route, the faster you can run an unknown course.
Days 3 and 6, interval run — Hill repeat
If the long run works stamina and the short run works strength, intervals work sheer speed.
It comes with finding a new pace. Howdyshell finds a short section of trail and runs a classic hill repeat. Run up the hill as fast as possible (95-100 percent) for 1-2 minutes, jog back to the bottom comfortably (60-70 percent) and rest for 1-2 minutes. Then repeat, aiming for 4-5 reps.
Like the short and long workouts, increase the difficulty when the routine gets easy. Howdyshell swears by the endurance athlete “gold standard” of six reps, with four minutes of running and one minute of recovery.
“As with anything else, I find that intervals are the most overlooked part for any mountain athletes,” Howdyshell says. “You may do a few races a year and aren’t concerned with winning, but the thing with intervals is they make everything else — your long and your short workout — feel so much better. You find a different, faster pace that makes everything else feel easy.”
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