How do you train for mountains when you don't live in a place with mountains? The reality is that some of us live in areas that are very flat. Right now, I can get about 400ft of elevation gain on a 10 mile run. That's nothing. I used to get 1,400ft+ from a 7 mile run when I lived by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The most important thing we need to do is to break down both the physical requirements of mountain running, and the specific movement pattern that occurs when running up big hills.
As far as physical requirements, obviously running uphill is harder than running on flat ground. Thank you, gravity. The steeper the hill, the harder it gets. As a result of this difficulty, we need A LOT of strength and endurance in our lower body. Additionally, running is a one-leg-at-a-time sport, so we need this strength and endurance built up in each leg individually. Squats are awesome, but we need to train specifically here. I highly recommend the following three exercises.
Bulgarian Split Squat - Pistol Squat - Step-ups (all demoed in the video below). You can perform these exercises weighted or unweighted, but I'd recommend a variation of both. Some sessions with more weight and less reps, and some sessions with your body weight only, and a TON of reps. Think about how many steps you'll take during a 10K mountain race!
There are a bunch of other lower body exercises that could help, including plyometric work, but we're keeping this simple and effective for the masses.
For your actual run training, what do you do? A lot of people gravitate toward the Stair Master. Ignore the Stair Master. It's not that it's a bad machine or a bad workout, but it is far less effective/efficient for the training you need. Here are two options: 1) Incline Treadmill 2) Real Stairs. Let's look at pros and cons of both.
If you live in an area with little elevation change, it can be very challenging to properly train for mountainous races like Hawaii, Killington, Tahoe, Palmerton, and more. These races are bucket list events for many in OCR. This program is a 4 week block of training to build on your current running work. It will dramatically increase your ability to run and power hike long, steep hills. Click on the title or photo to learn more.
Pros: Most treadmills will go up to 15% inclines which gives you a very challenging workout on a steep grade. Your gym may have a treadmill that goes up to 30%, and in very rare cases, even 40%. Because you are walking on steep grades, you are getting almost exactly the same movement pattern as uphill running. The Death March at Killington will never be easy, but I promise it'll be a lot easier if you've regularly trained on a 15%+ incline treadmill for 60 minutes straight. Walking on an incline will help strengthen your glutes, quads, and calves for the rigors of running up a mountain.
Cons: No real eccentric loading. Eccentric loading in mountain running occurs mainly on the downhill portion. If you're always going uphill on a treadmill, you aren't getting this training accomplished. Running downhill puts a TON of stress on your lower body, so having some downhill training certainly helps. That being said, the strength training portion will be very beneficial for that eccentric downhill workout. It's not a perfect substitute, but you'll be FAR BETTER PREPARED having done the strength training mentioned above.
Stairs: (again, not Stair Masters)
Pros: Similar movement to mountain uphill running. You are responsible for generating all of the force/energy for movement. It's also an awesome lower body workout. It will definitely help prepare you for mountains. You ALSO GET the eccentric loading portion if you walk or run back down the stairs (just be careful if running down). As mentioned previously, having that eccentric load training will help strengthen your legs and prepare them for long downhill portions at races.
Cons: Stairs normally have other people going up and down them. It's generally difficult to find stair that go on for a long time to better simulate a long uphill. I used to train sandbag carries up 7 flights of stairs in my gym's parking garage when I lived in the DC area. You just have to keep going up and down and up and down to get a really good training session in, but it's worth it.
It's very possible to be a good mountain runner and live on flat land. There are only 2 reasons why you can't be.
1: You don't know what to do. Now that you've read this article, you know what to do.
2: You're just making excuses.
Get out there and train for those mountains!!! If you still don't feel comfortable taking this information and implementing it into a good training routine, check out the program below. I spent a lot of time putting it together for this very reason...well...and because I'm sick of seeing the enormous numbers of DNF's at Killington every. single. year. If you want something even more expansive, visit out OCR training programs. We've helped athletes complete Killington, place in the age group, complete their first Ultra, and a host of other goals.
If you live in a geographical area with very little elevation change, it can be extremely challenging to properly train for mountainous races like Hawaii, Killington, Tahoe, Palmerton, and more. These races are bucket list events for many in OCR. This program is a 4 week block of training to build on your current running work. It will dramatically increase your ability to run and power hike long, steep hills.