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What Five Months of Running in the Mountains Has Taught Me

Posted by on May 22, 2012 | 16 Comments

This last winter, we  spent about five months in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado. During that time, Shelly and I have  run in mountains almost exclusively. That experience has been a tremendous learning opportunity.  Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:

  • Running efficiency is incredibly important, especially running uphill. Short, quick, relaxed steps make it MUCH easier to climb several miles up a mountain.
  • When running downhill, slightly shifting my weight backward a little bit makes a huge difference. My downhill running average pace has dropped from about 11-12 minute miles to around 7-8 minute miles.
  • When I run down switchbacks, I can run faster by drifting to the outside as I enter a turn, then cut back sharply to the inside as I enter the apex, then drift to the outside as I exit the apex. It looks something like this:

Here’s the European version:

  • Doing hill repeats is an adequate substitute for flat-ground speed work.
  • Crosstraining helps.  Exercises like squats and lunges help strengthen legs for both climbing and descending. Carrying things like slosh tubes or sand bags in training also makes a huge difference.
  • Rock-laden trails eat my shoes, especially when running fast downhill. The average lifespan of my shoes went from about 1500 miles to about 600.
  • Altitude requires greater water consumption.
  • The terrain makes a huge difference. Rocky technical trails are much slower than mostly dirt-covered trails.
  • The scenery at the top of a summit never gets old. I would give up running ultras and running barefoot before I give up running in mountains.

If you get the opportunity to do any training in mountains, TAKE IT! Even road runners would benefit.



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  1. Mary
    May 28, 2012

    I’m in Europe and I wouldn’t cut those switchbacks … but then again I’m American. I was in a race not long ago and on a downhill section this guy came barrelling past me like a bat out of hell. And then a woman flew past me telling me to let go of my brakes. I like my face the way it is, thanks. 🙂

  2. Ken Barefoot Ng
    May 23, 2012

    It’s called running the tangents, is how all road courses are measured, and how all top runners run. Just like slalom skiing.

    • Rob Y
      May 23, 2012

      Not exactly. Jason’s switch-backing approach (actually quite common) is to swing wide of the pending turn in the opposite direction of the switch-back and THEN to cut sharply in the direction of the switch-back. Just like what you’d see from cars/motorcycles racing on a road course. Running tangents would be mean running the shortest line between tangents, the above technique is not the shortest path but perhaps one that makes it easier to maintain speed (at least that’s how I understand it from what Jason described and my own experience running switch-backs this way).

  3. David Goulette
    May 23, 2012

    I do a lot of my running in mountains and I have found that simply tilting/rotating my pelvis back acts as a brake when running downhill. Tilting forward speeds me up. I can control my speed by monitoring my pelvis tilt and i can usually find a balance point. And it is so much easier on my quads. I don’t know why it works but it is so simple and easy to regulate. It requires a bit more abdminal engangement. I dont like to think of it as “sitting back” or “sitting down” because I prefer visualizations that keep the spine loose and long. “sitting” for me seems to promote comprassion of the spine. Just ideas that have worked for me.

    • Mary
      May 28, 2012

      OOh this is very helpful. I suck at running downhill and I will try to implement this and see if it helps at all. Thanks!

  4. Shacky
    May 22, 2012

    Thank you for not writing “Mountains make Shacky’s vagina hurt” or something similar.

  5. Steve
    May 22, 2012

    Thanks for the advice, Jason; I’ll bear it in mind.

  6. Rob Y
    May 22, 2012

    The only mod I’d add to the downhill switch backing technique is to “alley-oop” some of the turns. For example on a left hand switch back as you enter the turn to the left you actually turn your body to the right. This is great fun and always amuses fellow trail runners. Grossly inefficient but extremely fun! You need to try it. I borrowed the technique from Brandon Sybrowsky years and years ago…

    • Jason
      May 22, 2012

      Rob, I actually did that occasionally to avoid unexpected branches, logs, or other debris on blind switchbacks. I may start doing it more just to add more flair. 🙂

      Thanks for the tip!

  7. Bare Lee
    May 22, 2012

    The mountains ruin the Midwest.

    • Jason
      May 22, 2012

      Agreed. Running in Chicago was like running on a treadmill.

  8. cavecritta
    May 22, 2012

    The technique you drew for the switch backs is also used in racing cars. it allows you to “straighten” the curve as much as possible and keep you speed as high as possible.

    • Jason
      May 22, 2012

      I got the idea from Jesse Scott, who used it for riding dirt bikes. We can learn a lot from the motorsports. 🙂

  9. Jeff Gallup
    May 22, 2012

    Wouldn’t trade running in the mountains for anything!

  10. Jeff Gallup
    May 22, 2012

    Wouldn’t trade running in the mountains for anything!

  11. OreMan
    May 22, 2012

    Is it really so bad for Europeans..? 😉