How to train for mountains in the flatlands

How do you train for mountains when you live in a flat region? Coach Sean Tait – founder of Off the Mark Training – has solutions for you, including proven methods using treadmills, short hill repeats, stairs, and once-a-week roadtrips to your local high point. You can do this!

“I’m training for a 50km race with over 2,500m vertical elevation. How do I train for these mountains when I live in a flat town? I only have the odd three-minute hill and I need to drive for half an hour to find a mountain.” Robbie

run stairs hills mountains couple vert ascent Pixabay TRAIL 31
In his ‘How and Why’ series – coach Sean Tait, founder and run technique coach at Off the Mark – drills down into the major challenges facing TRAIL readers. In this article, published in TRAIL issue 31, he addresses the ‘no mountain nearby’ dilemma.

I am very fortunate to have lived on the lower slopes of Newlands Forest for much of my life. Those that live on the base of any mountain really have it easy to train for hills.

To have the option of a tough mountainous route or an easy leg-turner through the suburbs (or along the promenade) make the functionality of your training so much more accurate.

But some are not so lucky – and I’ve worked with a few such clients.

Look at your cards

Okay! So you don’t have a mountain, but what do you have? Let’s keep things positive.

Robbie speaks about having a few ‘three-minute hills’ nearby. This is great: we can use this. He speaks about a mountain which is a 30 minute drive away. It’s too far to run there, but let’s remember that. We can bet that Robbie probably has a nearby gym that he could join, if he hasn’t already. Gyms have treadmills with inclines and stepping machines. Let’s save that information too.

Your road-trip run

Robbie could probably drive to the mountains once a week to do his long run, perhaps on the weekend when he has more time. As a trail runner, being out on the mountain is going to prepare his legs for the terrain that he will face on race day. It is fundamental that he gets out there on a weekly basis, and this is going to be his favourite run of the week. It’ll be the run where time passes the fastest.

run stairs mountains vertical ascent Pixabay TRAIL 31

The short kicker

I also bet you that Robbie could quite happily do a warmup trot out to his three minute hill, do a set of short, sharp hill repeats, and jog back home.

Some might find hill repeats monotonous, but they are undoubtedly the most effective way to train for elevation. You are always going up or down. No free miles. No 10-minute jogs along the plateau to the next hill. Just up and down.

If your body can become conditioned to you doing that, then you are going to be set for whatever race day has in store. This is a very time-effective method of training for a mountain race.

Using the belt

Now for the dread-mill! I know it’s not a trail running deluxe, but it’s your only way to replicate the long climbs with the options you have available to you.

You can do some repeats of 5-20 minutes at an intensity of six or seven out of a maximum intensity of 10, and gradually build up this session to a point where you get up to about 45 minutes (for advanced runners) of total uphill running. You also don’t need to descend. You can do a short walk recovery and start climbing again.

It can be a brutal way to prepare your body. I wouldn’t suggest making these sessions too long. 

Rather focus on the quality of this run. Keep a steady intensity, run with good form and try to avoid getting to the point where you dread this run because it is so long (and boring). 

A gradient of 5-10% makes it easier to hold your form, but feel free to mix it up. You can add variety with a stepping machine at the gym, which will target the glutes a bit more for those steep, rocky power-hikes.

Steps and granules

Other options include a stairway. Working in a high-rise building can be a training Mecca. Pop your shoes on at lunch time, warm up on the streets and head to the stairway for a climb simulating Mont Blanc.

Another option is the beach. I’m not sure if this is an option for Robbie, but this will prepare your body for the inconsistencies of the trail – just progress training on sand with caution.

mountain hill training programme by sean tait TRAIL 31

A bit confused?

The table above is a look at what a typical training week for an athlete in Robbie’s location may look like. It’s easily adapted to suit your needs and location.

To conclude, there is nothing that beats being out on the mountains. But if your motivation to prepare for your race is high enough, there should be nothing that can stop you finding a way to whip your body into the condition required.

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