Updated: Mar 26, 2021
It has been my experience that as an endurance athlete you either love or hate the mountains. Typically, that is determined by where you live. If you live and train in the mountains, then that is typically where you race. However, if you live closer to sea level on flat terrain then that is where your comfort level lies. Still, I believe if you want to grow you need to step out of your comfort zone from time to time. For flatlanders racing in the mountains this can be a daunting task for several reasons. Maybe you are intimidated by not having the proper terrain to train on or maybe you do not deal well with altitude or simply just don’t know how to train for the mountains.
Here are five tips to help flatlanders training for the mountains.
1. Climb, Climb, Climb
Many flatlanders underestimate the importance of climbing in training. Simply put, logging the miles is just not enough. Putting in the work and volume related to climbing and descending is crucial for the mountains. Incorporate hill work into your routine and practice power hiking. If you do not have the terrain available to simulate the demands of your race, get on the treadmill. Do progression runs where you start at a 5% grade and increase it 1% every mile during your run. Also crank up the incline to 15% or greater and practice power hiking at a 20-minute mile or better.
Pro Tip: I like to simulate the race demands as much as possible during some of my biggest training weeks. For example, when training for the Leadville 100, my volume during my biggest week was 100+ miles with close to 18,000 feet of climbing (the same demands for the race). Note: this may not work for everyone so do what your body and schedule will allow.
2. Altitude is Not Your Friend
If you are like me and live 500 feet above sea level, training for a race at 10,000 feet poses a lot of challenges. There is no substitute for training at altitude. Contrary to popular belief substitutes like masks and altitude chambers do not work. You really only have two options.
a. Spend two weeks or more at the altitude you will be racing at right before the race. The longer the better. 3 days to 2 weeks after arriving roughly is the time altitude hits you the hardest. After your blood cell count will improve and oxygen saturation will improve. If you spend time at altitude, then go back to sea level for a week before the race you will lose the adaptations you have built.
b. Show up right before the race. Typically, 24-48 hours. The shorter the better. Typically, your body won’t feel the full effects of the altitude until around 3-5 days later so racing before your body knows what you are doing to it is the best option for most athletes.
Pro Tip: Typically, the effects of altitude below 8,000 feet elevation are minimal for most people. Above that you will need to figure out how you will combat the effects of altitude.
3. Know the Course
It is very important to know the course front and backwards. This will help you know how to pace and mentally know what is ahead of you. Do I need to push on this section or conserve energy? Should I be eating for what’s ahead? Do I need poles or a shoe change for the next section? Knowing the course and what demands will be asked of you will drastically improve your chances for success.
Pro Tip: If you can train on the specific course you will be racing on your success and confidence level will greatly improve. Knowing how to pace is very important as well.
4. Expand Your Toolbox
Mountain racing requires more than just running. The terrain in the mountains is usually very dynamic so you must have the tools to adapt, improvise and overcome. Power hiking is an essential tool because you will not always be able to run so developing that skill set and the different muscle groups required is essential. If you are going to use poles, then practice using them in varied terrain, and be sure they are necessary. Most people do not know how to properly use them or use them when not needed which makes them a liability, not an asset.
Pro Tip: Technique is important. Practice keeping your shoulders back and chest open. Your gaze should be around 5-6 feet in front of you. If you must bend over on steep grades, try putting your hands on your knees and pushing while power hiking. To learn how to properly use poles try watching some cross-country skiing videos on YouTube. Actively push the poles into the ground and behind you to propel you forward..
5. Dial in Your Gear and Nutrition
Having the proper gear and nutrition strategy is very important. Furthermore, you need to be practicing and using your nutrition and gear in training. Knowing things like does the design of this pack fit my body type or does it cause chaffing? Do I even need a pack? Should I use bottles or a bladder? What foods and supplements work best for me and won’t cause pallet fatigue or gastrointestinal issues? Do I take salt tabs or rely on sports drinks? What goes in my drop bag? If I have a crew, do they know what works well for me? The more you can practice the better.
Pro Tip: Eat on the flats and summits. If your ascents or descents last more than an hour, then you will need to practice eating on those sections also. Typically consuming 300-400 calories of carbohydrates per hour is adequate but you should practice seeing what works well for you.
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