Train For Uphill Trail Running

Morne Nel and Tracey Campbell climb more than 500m on a single ascent in Vanstaadensberg training for uphill
Morne Nel and Tracey Campbell climb more than 500m on a single ascent in Vanstaadensberg in the Eastern Cape. Photo Andy Wesson

Be strong when the trail goes vertical

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 27, he addresses the challenge of doing enough uphill running in your event preparation.

“Should I train to vertical elevation parameters on the trail, rather than distance? Colin

sean tait training for uphill for vertical article trail runner diagram triangle magazine issue 27

This is a very interesting question. Generally, we hear runners talking about, and subsequently training to, mileage or time parameters. The problem with this is that most of these runners are road runners. We are not… Well, at least not exclusively.

Let’s first clarify that vertical elevation refers to the total number of metres ascended vertically (not the same as the length of a hill… chat to Mr Pythagoras) along the entire duration of your run.

The difference between running 20km along a pancake-flat course and 20km with 2,000m vertical gain is virtually incomparable. If you have a 20km run scheduled, the easiest way to tick that box is to select the flattest route to get it done as quickly, and with as little effort, as possible. But have you really ticked the box, or have you just cheated?

Train towards your goal

The most important ingredient in your training is specificity. Essentially this involves identifying exactly what the requirements of your events are, and structuring your sessions to become better at them.

If you have to race over mountainous terrain but are sticking to the valleys on your runs, you are not preparing specifically for your event. Your distance or time totals are just sugar-coating your training. In the race there will be no way around the mountains.

So how do you make sure that you are getting enough vertical into your runs? How much is enough?

Do the maths

I like to use a simple equation. Let’s assume that you are competing in a 30km event with a vertical gain of 1,500m. This equates to 50m vertical to every 1km covered. By multiplying your mileage target by 50, you can very easily get an idea of what vertical you should be looking to cover over the course of your run.

That 20km training run we were referring to should therefore have about 1,000m vertical gain. Now your training is specific to your event.

diagram with three levels of training for uphill based on pace for vertical trail running article published in TRAIL magazine issue 27
Choose three intensities from three pace levels when training in the hills. No hills? Read this.

Many top trail runners use elevation targets to make sure that they are preparing accurately for their events.

Mountain runner Ryno Griesel is one example: “Be terrain-specific in your preparation,” says Ryno. “Including vertical gain as a metric in your training not only prepares you for the expected volume of climbing, but also how to manage them on fatigued legs. Efficient climbers often alternate between running and power-hiking and it is during training that we learn how to find this balance.”

Bear in mind that your ratio may be 1km:50m for your long training runs to target race specific terrain, but you can adjust this based on the goals of your session.

If you are doing a shorter run at a higher intensity, you may want to include even tougher terrain, perhaps 65m vert for every 1km. This will really prepare you well for the seemingly measly 50m ascent per kilometre that you will face on race day.

Likewise if you are just doing a short recovery run, you don’t need to slog your body over the big mountains… that’s not what a recovery run is for. Select terrain with more gentle elevation such as 35m per km, or less. This will feel comparatively easy.

Distance versus time targeting

So now your training runs are a lot more specific, but there is still an elephant in the room – the ever-present distance target.

I’m not a fan of running for distance, especially not when training on the trail. It’s still a very loaded statistic and therefore on such varied terrain it can be tossed in the bin. I prefer to use time/duration as a reference for training volume as opposed to distance.

A three hour run is a three hour run… no matter how fast you run it, so there will be less tendency to run too hard just to get it done. It’s also a lot easier to safely manage your volume progression when you run to time.

What about treadmill training?

A study titled Effect of ground technicity on cardio-respiratory and biomechanical parameters in uphill trail running (published in the European Journal of Sport Science in December 2021) confirms without any doubt that running uphill on a trail is not the same as running on an inclined treadmill, although there are similar and significant benefits to both.

Running on the trail results in a higher oxygen cost and more sideways movement when compared to the treadmill… it makes sense, doesn’t it?!

Interestingly, the runners perceived the two different terrains to be equally hard when perceived effort was taken into account. Perhaps the additional mental challenge of running indoors levelled things up?

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The verdict

The take home message is that Yes, we should definitely be monitoring our vertical gain as trail runners, and we should be relating this to the duration of the run rather than distance.

This may mean that you will have to plan your routes a lot better, but that’s part of the game.

And don’t forget: What goes up… must come down!

Got a question? Email 

Additional reading

Do you live in a flat area and need a mountain? Read Sean’s article on finding ways to mimic mountain training.

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