How to Prepare for a Mountain Run
OCC is the smallest of the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) races. However, covering 57k and 3,500m of elevation gain, it is a challenge not to be taken lightly as I found out on Thursday 31st of August. Living in pancake-flat London, it was incredibly tough to train for the mountain terrain. Having now completed the race I feel I can offer some tips to those of you wishing to push yourselves and explore higher grounds. So, here are my tips for how to prepare for a mountain run.
Do your homework / Think ahead
It's not too difficult to qualify for the OCC - if you get lucky in the ballot that is. This is a good and a bad thing. It means you could complete a flat ultra to enter a mountain race. The problem is if you don’t do hill sessions or have access to long trails it could be a challenge too far. In hindsight I would recommend finding a race that includes a good amount of climbing so that it acts as training/preparation for future races.
Head for the hills
In the few months leading up to OCC I made regular trips to the North of London to do repetitions of Swains Lane, Haverstock Hill, Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill. Although these are molehills compared to the Alps, it was the best that I could do around work and busy weekends. If I were to do the training again I would definitely swap out a few Track Tuesdays for longer runs over hills.
Do long slow runs
After training for the Boston Marathon at the start of the year, I really enjoyed easing off the pace and banking a few long runs in the lead up to OCC. Ideally I would have headed to the North or South Downs Way, or further afield for long steady runs. For convenience as the event neared, I ran 32k along the river one weekend, and then 30k along the river and up around Hampstead Heath with a friend the next. If I were to give myself a longer training period for a mountain race I would definitely prioritise the long slow runs more. I would also try to replicate the race scenario by going from walking to running regularly.
Run to and from work
To fit training around work I am a big fan of run commuting. As my regular route is 8km I often run both to and from the office. Over the last few years, I have become used to running to work, running at lunchtime and running home. It has definitely helped me become accustomed to run, eat, repeat, which is needed over an ultra.
Take part in 24 hour team relays
A few months prior to OCC, I ran in a team of five at Endure 24. I have taken part in four 24-hour events now and find them a great way to get the miles in on tough trail courses. They are also good for practising nutrition, running with a headtorch, and trialling and choosing race day kit.
Spend time Hiking/Walking
As mountain races are inevitably going to include thousands of metres of climbing they will take a lot longer than a road race. Time on feet is key. You’ll spend a long time walking up the big climbs, so trying to replicate this by tackling repetitions of big/steep hills would be good training. If you can make a trip to recce the course beforehand that would be perfect.
Train on a treadmill on an incline
If you live a long way from any trails or hills your best option may be to run on a treadmill on a steep incline. For me this would definitely be a last option as come race day you will not only be negotiating the steepness of the mountains, but you will have to be strong enough to clamber over large rocks and tree roots at the same time.
Try altitude training
OCC starts at around 1,000m and takes you over 2,000m. I would recommend trying to run at altitude before a mountain race as it takes a while to adapt to thinner air and the lack of oxygen. If you can book in a few sessions at an altitude centre it would be beneficial.
Avoid taper temptations
Personally I find tapering incredibly difficult, I often struggle to strike the balance between keeping my legs fresh but not letting them seize up completely. Sometimes I run too much (see my blog on Night of the 10,000m PBs), and other times I rest too much. Being in Chamonix a few days before the race it was so hard to not take part in all the shakeout runs and join friends for big hikes but somehow I managed to get to race day feeling fresh. I kept saying to myself “I’m sure there’ll be brilliant views if I go on this hike now but I will run so many great trails on race day to more than make up for it. I would massively regret overdoing it if I couldn’t make that finish line.”
Poles – I think poles would have been beneficial in the wet and muddy conditions. I reasoned that having my hands free for scrambling up the climbs would be best. In hindsight, I should have invested in some telescopic poles for use in the muddy sections (pretty much the whole route!)
Nutrition – Take what you have used in training. That being said, the aid stations are great, the noodle soup is a winner, and coca cola gave me a real boost when I was feeling low on energy.
Trail shoes – More grip is better than not enough. As there are only a few short sections on road, next time I take part in a mountain or trail race I am going to prioritise grip over weight. I opted for a light pair of trail shoes this time. Although they were super comfortable, I saw a lot of other runners negotiating the muddy climbs a lot more easily.
Socks – Comfortable, well padded socks are a must. I would definitely recommend taking a spare pair or two in your bag. When you do your route research try to see if there are any streams to cross - having a change of socks can make such a difference especially in the longer races.
Spare clothes – If rain is forecast, it’s a good idea to have enough clothing to change into so you don’t get too cold. The weather is incredibly changeable in the mountains and this meant I had to pack for all conditions. Try to plan when you are going to layer up in aid stations - you don’t want to be fumbling through your bag for kit on the side of a mountain. In the early morning, the Marlow jacket provided just the right amount of warmth and shielded me from the wind. It was also great that I didn't need to carry a bag - I popped my keys, cards and phone in the back pocket. The lightweight, breathable Lancaster Vest was also great for a short hike in the sun.
Warm midlayer – When you’re running at speed the cold weather isn’t too much of a problem but when you’re working hard up a climb and some kilometres can take close to 20 minutes you’ll be glad you packed a super warm mid-layer. I’d recommend the Thorpe long sleeved zip top for those long ascents. You can zip it up to keep your neck warm and loop your thumbs through the fold-down cuffs to protect your hands from the cold.
Hat and gloves – When you are high up and exposed it can get really cold. A woolly hat and some gloves can make a big difference.
Headtorch – If you think you’ll be out in the dark make sure you’ve tested your headtorch well. The last thing you need is a really dim light when you are trying to negotiate rocks and tree roots.
Overall I had a great experience running OCC. The atmosphere in Chamonix was incredible throughout the whole week. It was a great challenge and one that I would love to return to having completed a lot more specific training. If you are contemplating a trail or mountain ultra make sure you have long enough to put in the hard miles, but most of all enjoy the journey.