By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
During one of our recent coaching meetings, one of our coaches brought up a scenario of an athlete who lives in the Midwest who is training for a 50-mile race with 8,000 feet of elevation gain. For this particular athlete, she might only be able to get in 8,000 feet of elevation gain over a 6-week period, so the proposition of piling all of that gain into one race is quite daunting. The scenario is a common one, as athletes from Florida, Texas, parts of the Midwest and other areas without access to much elevation gain have just as much FOMO about running in the mountains as those in California, Colorado and Utah.
For decades, ultrarunners without access to vertical gain have tried to solve the riddle of preparing for mountainous events without access to mountains in training. Some runners have resorted to running in parking garages, up and down flights of stairs, and purchasing treadmills that will both incline and decline. Others will hit the gym for some strength training, run in weighted vests, perform box step ups ad nauseam, and different combinations of all of the above in an attempt to prepare for steep terrain. While I applaud all these attempts for their creativity and ingenuity, let’s face it, some of those ideas are better than others.
With the right modality, dose and timing of some of these adjunctive training methods, any ultrarunner hailing from the flattest of the flat lands can be prepared for races such as the Hardrock 100, Wasatch 100 or Speedgoat 50k. Over the course of my coaching career, I have had to solve this problem for athletes as well. Using a combination of fundamental physiology and some coaching intuition, we can tailor this hodgepodge basket of random training modes to a strategy that will ultimately get your legs ready to tackle any challenge.
Defining the problem
One of the reasons you will see the plethora of contrived attempts to solve this uphill and downhill mystery is that few have taken the time to actually define what the problem is in the first place. In other words:
What physical challenges do uphill and downhill running present as compared to level running?
Uphill running is distinguished by a shorter stride length, greater glute activation, more torque around the ankle, lower overall ground reaction forces (how hard you hit the ground and therefore how hard the ground pushes back on you) and an aerobic stress that is the same or greater than that of running on level terrain.
Downhill running is marked by high eccentric loads (an active lengthening of the muscle), particularly on the quadriceps, higher ground reaction forces and much lower aerobic stress. To put it succinctly, uphill running is predominately an aerobic problem to solve and downhill running is mainly a muscular one. Of the two, it’s the latter that creates more fear and anxiety in ultrarunners. And rightfully so. Even if you are not specifically prepared for the uphills, as long as you are fit, your aerobic system can compensate. If you are not prepared for the downhills, your race can grind to a halt because there is no fallback mechanism.
Adaptation to eccentric exercise does not take a lot of dose or time
So, here’s where the practical rubber meets the road. How much vertical gain/loss, or equivalent amount of adjunctive training like running up and down stairs does it take to make a meaningful adaptation to prepare your legs for the downhill? In training (as well as in medicine), this is known as the dose-response relationship. This dose-response relationship is the driving force behind the structure of the intervals I recommend, the Long Range Plan that is deployed, which means basically anything that is prescribed to an athlete. In the endurance world, the training dose is often referred to as a chronic stimulus. Meaning, it takes many doses over long periods of time (weeks and months) to create a reasonable response. This is why runners panic when it’s 8-weeks out from an event and they realize they’re not ready. It’s also why a static 12-week training plan for a 100-mile race is not going to cut mustard (it takes longer than 8-12 weeks to meaningfully improve). Paradoxically, adaptations to eccentric exercise follow a much different dose-response pattern, and one that many ultarunners do not realize.
The repeated bout effect
Eccentric work done by the muscles is quite interesting. During an active lengthening of the muscle, an athlete can do more work with less cardiovascular effort. For instance, cycling in reverse (primary an eccentric exercise) has been used in cardiac rehabilitation protocols, because it gives the patient an effective workout with lower cardiovascular load. The negative consequence of this type of muscular activation is that it causes a lot of damage. For decades, researchers have used eccentric muscular work to induce muscular damage when studying the effects of things like nutritional supplementation, training interventions, the time course for muscle repair, and other phenomena associated with breaking down and building back muscle fibers.
It’s a good research model because it does not take a lot of work to produce a significant amount of muscular damage, something any trail runner experiences the first time they bomb down a descent, leaving them with sore, leaden legs. Along the course of this research, they have found that there is a strong and lasting protective effect associated with low doses of eccentric training. The effect is so marked that even a singular bout of eccentric training can have a protective effect on subsequent bouts, even if those subsequent bouts are performed days and weeks later. The aptly term coined for this effect is the ‘repeated bout effect’ (or sometimes the inoculation effect. But in today’s COVID world, let’s skip the latter term to avoid confusion).
When we think about how to adapt an ultrarunner to the eccentric loading required in an ultramarathon, the repeated bout effect can provide some clues for determining the right dose to get an adequate response. The gist of it is, it does not take much, and a little downhill dose will go a long way. So, you flatlanders can rejoice!
What’s the solution?
Back to our coaching meeting I mentioned at the onset of this article. Understanding the underlying physiology, which is underpinned by the repeated bout effect, we can look at interventions that blend the development of cardiovascular fitness alongside preparation for the eccentric load required for the event. As a coaching team, we set about determining the best solutions that created the right training dose to produce the most meaningful adaptations. In order of priority, here was our consensus:
Best option: A training camp 4-6 weeks out from the event
If you are a flatlander training for an event in the mountains and have the option to do a short weekend camp in a mountainous area, do it. This is your best bang-for-your-buck activity and one that many athletes have practical access to. The structure for your mini-camp is actually quite simple: go do long runs on steep terrain. There is no need to run the downhills hard or even increase your running volume above what you would normally be doing. Remember, any addition of vertical gain on top of what you have been doing is an increase in training load, and probably a large one. Compounding that stress with an increase volume and/or hard downhill running is not only unnecessary, but can lead to maladaptation.
What to do: A 2-3 day training camp in mountainous terrain. Normal or slightly longer daily run volume. All runs should be performed at an EnduranceRun intensity. The camp should be performed 4-6 weeks out from the event.
Using your local shorter climbs
Chances are, even if you live in a flat area, there is a short hill (~50-300 feet) that you have access to, perhaps in a neighborhood street, a park, or bike path. You can use these shorter hills to your advantage, and like the training camp option, a little will go a long way. Doing circuits of these types of hills twice per week for 4-6 weeks at an EnduranceRun intensity provides plenty of vertical dose to do the job. In this situation, running those hills hard is largely unnecessary, unless you are using the uphill as part of some type of interval structure. These shorter hill sessions can also be used in addition the camp option to ensure that the adaptations you make carry over to race day.
What to do: Run 2-3 times per week on your chosen hill circuit at EnduranceRun intensity for ~4-6 weeks before your event.
Using a decline treadmill
Similar to the shorter climbs, using a treadmill with a decline option can be an effective way to get in some descending. However, I would not advocate for this in lieu of doing the shorter climbs in a natural environment, nor I would not use this option in conjunction with the shorter climbs. However, if you lack some natural shorter climbs, this is a reasonable alternative.
What to do: Run 2-3 times per week on a declining treadmill at EnduranceRun intensity. During the run, alternate periods of climbing and descending equally.
‘Grasping at straws’ options
If you don’t have access to a camp, a short local hill or a declining treadmill, it might (intentional emphasis on that word) be worth your time to explore options like strength training, running up and down stairs in a building or up and down a parking garage. However, if I’m being honest (and y’all know I will be) I don’t think any of these options produce meaningful adaptations. You are better off focusing on your training, getting as fit as possible, and doing a combination of volume and intensity that’s appropriate for you.
Options to avoid
And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the options you should avoid. You will certainly find some athletes and coaches who do some form of these, and subsequently post it on Instagram for all to see (and for me, be bewildered). These novel attempts might get points for creativity, but as we say ‘entertainment does not equal results’. The real problem is the not even the lack any sort of physiological basis. It’s the fact these interventions are in direct opposition to what we know about eccentric exercise. Remember, if you do not have regular access to vertical terrain, any additional stimulus will produce an adaption. And, as we know from nearly a century of research, a little eccentric stimulus will go a very long way. This also means it is easy to overload your system with too much eccentric work, which increases the risks for maladaptation or injury.
Many of the options listed below are not recommend because they provide too much training dose when very little is required. With that being said, here’s your list of naughty modalities to avoid and why:
- Combining any of the grasping at straws options with the good or best options
- Why this is a bad idea: You are stepping over dollars to pick up pennies. If you have access to a camp, local hill or decline treadmill, use them and stop there. Those options will take you a very, very long way. Don’t get needlessly distracted by less efficacious modalities when you have good options to choose from.
- Tire dragging
- Why this is a bad idea: If you are using this as some sort of strength training exercise, great. If you are using this specifically to cope with the downhills, may the good running lord have mercy on your soul. The biomechanics of this exercise do not in any way resemble those of running downhill. Tire drags are predominately a concentric exercise while downhill running is predominately eccentric. The real loss here is it’s just a waste of time and a misapplied exercise for the intent.
- Running downhill with a weighted vest (or running with a weight vest at all, for that matter).
- Why this is a bad idea: Running with a weighted vest is a good way to get slow and injured. If you do not have access to regular vertical terrain, this is likely going to be too much of an overload relative to any positive adaptions you might achieve. Every 1 pound you add, your body has to handle 2.5-3 times that amount of force with each and every foot strike. Remember, Force = Mass x Acceleration, and you’re accelerating more mass toward the ground. So, if you add a 25-pound weighted vest and go for a run, you are adding nearly 75 pounds of force to each foot strike. Going back to our ‘it does not take a lot’ principle for eccentric exercise, you can clearly see the overload is too high for targeting an eccentric adaptation.
Fitness matters the most
Finally, we should always bear in mind that even if you have no access to any of these options, your fitness still leads the way. Yes, getting in some sort of vertical training is important, but not at the expense of your overall fitness. After all, you are still training for an endurance event, and the strength of your cardiovascular system is the most meaningful determinate of success.