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Expert Tips for Vert(ical) Training and Mastering Trail Running


, by Fabienne Lang

Joe McConaughy is an FKT specialist. Photography courtesy of Brooks Running

Prepare yourself for the ups (and downs) of trail running by incorporating vert training, featuring tips from 3 Brooks Trail Runners including Hillary ‘Hillygoat’ Allen. 

Disclaimer: There isn't a single "best" approach to training for a challenging trail run or skyrun. Success can be achieved through various methods. This article is for trail runners who might view ultras or vert-intensive trail and skyruns as feats only for super humans. Here's another disclaimer: they're not. Pursuing big vert is for anyone inspired by pushing their limits. 

To help you scale mountains with ease, we've gathered insights from three renowned trail runners and Brooks Running Pros – Hillary Allen, Bryan Bhark, and Joe McConaughy.

Joe is a Fastest Known Time (FKT) specialist with a knack for racking up vert. He recently completed an eight-hour vert session on the cable line trail on Tiger Mountain in preparation for the infamous Barkley Marathons in Tennessee in mid-March. Based in North Seattle, he’s a running coach and a big believer in finding fun ways to rack up vert in cities.

Hillary, AKA the trail queen of Boulder, Colorado is widely recognized for her preferred style of racing on steep, verty terrain. There’s a reason she’s picked up the nickname Hillygoat. Like Joe, she’s also a coach for many athletes. 

Bryan is a Pacific Northwest crusher and Brooks Running Footwear Innovation Development manager. He knows the importance of vert training, which was on full display when he placed 19th at TDS UTMB in 2021. The little brother to UTMB, it’s the shorter, steeper version of the main event. 

Hillary Allen is also known as the Hillygoat. Photography courtesy of: Brooks Running

Why adding vert to your training will help you on race day

The importance of adding vert into your training is perfectly summed up by Joe’s experience: “I first realized how important vert training was when I did my first mountain race, CCC at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. My quads were shot, and my race went sideways, and I realized if I wanted to reach my potential, I needed to be much more intentional about including vertical gain into my training.”

Let's now explore training suggestions from the Brooks Trail Runners to spare your legs from the ordeal Joe faced at CCC.

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Rack up vert pre-race

When signing up for a marathon, you typically follow a training plan that includes increasing mileage every week. 

“It's the same concept when racking up vert, but you just shift it to a different metric,” explains Hillary. “Normally, that’s increasing vertical gain and time. That can come in many forms, either on the trails or on a Stairmaster in a gym. It’s also bagging as many peaks as you can in training without going too hard.”

The biggest thing with mountain running and big vert is realizing there’s a lot of hiking involved.

Joe chips in by adding, “Track your weekly vert! If you are doing a trail race, try to match the elevation grade in your weekly volume or in key training runs. For example, if you are running Chuckanut 50k which is 5,500ft of gain over 31 miles - or 177 ft/mi - try to build up to an average of 150-200 ft/mi in your peak training weeks, or make sure you do a few long runs that match that elevation profile of the course.”

Bryan agrees with this method: “Try to mimic the average vertical gain per mile of your race, especially for your longer runs. And for shorter, steeper courses, I put greater emphasis on running sections of longer climbs instead of only power hiking.”

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Hike the uphills

Before you eagerly pelt up the first hill of your trail run, consider Hillary’s wise words: “The biggest thing with mountain running and big vert is realizing there’s a lot of hiking involved. Even for a 50K race, you’re going so steeply uphill that you can’t necessarily run all of it. I embrace hiking uphill and I love it,” she says. 

Joe agrees, “Taking the uphills easy, especially in the beginning of a race, is a great tactic for most any trail runner and will usually lead to you passing other runners in the back half of a race. Patience is key!”

Joe McConaughy is an FKT specialist. Photography courtesy of: Brooks Running

Bryan eagerly joins in by stating: “Hike before you have to!!! Power hiking is incredibly efficient and is something to not be overlooked in training. Running biomechanics and power hiking biomechanics are very different; therefore, to ensure success on race day, practice power hiking. In most long mountainous races (50 miles and over), it’s not uncommon for even the top runners to hike most ascents, saving their legs for descents.”

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Strength training for descents

While the ups are important, it's also important not to ignore the downs,” explains Joe. “Doing eccentric quad-focused lifting exercises are especially important to athletes who run on flat or do treadmill miles. So, I recommend athletes who have to get a lot of vert in on a treadmill to do single leg eccentric squats with weight.”

A point Hillary also endorses: “You have to make sure you also stay healthy for the descents, and that focusing on gym work to help with eccentric loading of the quads.”

Seek out the hills! Focus on what you can control and what you have access to. I've coached folks in New Orleans who've done workouts and gotten vert in parking garages.

“Descending creates eccentric loading on your muscles which helps tremendously in building fatigue resistance,” Bryan concurs.

Hit the gym and incorporate some eccentric training for your quads. You'll thank yourself later, especially when facing those treacherous downhill stretches that can wreak havoc on your knees without proper strength training.

Urban inspiration

For those of us who aren't situated near mountains yet still participate in trail running events or aspire to boost our vertical game, Joe – a master at creatively accumulating vert even in urban settings – shares his insights.

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“Make it fun! Seek out the hills! Focus on what you can control and what you have access to. I've coached folks in New Orleans who've done workouts and gotten vert in parking garages. I can't drive 30 minutes to the mountains every day, so I do repeats or create random routes that seek out as much vertical gain as I can,” he explains. 

“For some trail runners, getting on a 20lb weight vest and hiking up stairs or hills is a great way to build strength and it mimics the race pace of most ultrarunners on uphills. Of course, the stair stepper and the treadmill are great tools at your disposal. You can use Strava segments on your race course to identify the elevation profile of important climbs and then set your treadmill to that grade to mimic what you will experience on race day.”

Bryan Bhark is Brooks Running Footwear Innovation Development manager. Photography courtesy of: Brooks Running

Mindset over matter

While physical preparation is paramount, cultivating psychological resilience is equally vital when confronting particularly challenging climbs. Fortunately, there are techniques to train your mind for those demanding days with substantial elevation gain.

“Mentally, I approach difficult climbs and distance in chunks,” says Bryan. “Thinking about an entire climb or route is simply too daunting; therefore, I only think about the next climb. When things get hard, I also tell myself that ‘We get to do this’.”

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Hillary has a similar approach, “Be in the moment you're in, be in the mile or the kilometer that you're in, and one mantra I say that helps me do that is ‘Just one step at a time’.” 

For Joe, it’s all about making it fun and seeing how your training translates on the trails, “Vert training is fun. It's a great excuse to find interesting trails, roads, or routes that throw variables at you. When you spend time training on trails or getting in vert, the climbs and descents feel more approachable.”

Be in the moment you're in, be in the mile or the kilometer that you're in, and one mantra I say that helps me do that is ‘Just one step at a time’.

“Also, don’t forget to enjoy yourself and celebrate at the top,” Bryan reminds us. “I always take a moment, no matter the effort or speed, to stop for a moment, take in the views, and feel gratitude for the ability to be outside.”

Follow your Feet

The true magic begins with the legwork you put in at home. With the wisdom of these trail-running gurus, envision yourself at the summit, breathing in the crisp mountain air, and feeling “that sense of accomplishment when I can look down at the trail that I came up,” as Hillary perfectly sums up. 

Join the adventure with Joe, Hillary, and Bryan on Strava, and keep up with their mountain adventures. But don't forget to embrace your own journey too – let curiosity guide your feet as you explore new summits and trails.

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