How much do we really need the vertical in our ultra running lives?
While those who live in a Centennial Park bubble remain focused on speed and ‘jizzing’ over their 1km interval times, we as fat slow ultra runners love a good hike up a hill/mountain as an excuse to ‘train’, or maybe just to have a walk and knock back a pie. But just how important is ‘the vert’ over say other forms of training like downhills and speed intervals?
Given the large spikes in the profiles of many ultra marathons, logic suggests that a bit of uphill training will get us through the day. But just how important is downhill running too? Do we, because of a big mountain in the race profile, suddenly think we need to be hiking up a hill all day to get our legs conditioned for it?
This article has also partly been inspired by the recent Buffalo Stampede vertical gain competition. If you’re one of our overseas runners, or if indeed, you’ve never heard of the Buffalo Stampede then let me explain. The Buffalo race was the first Skyrunning event to be held in Australia last year, which also bills as the Oceania Championships. There’s a 75km, 42km and 26km options and in short, a truck load of climbing, but importantly, the same amount of descending too.
As part of the build-up, there’s a competition in the month of February to see who can clock the most vertical climbing in any of the four weeks. This is not an accumulative competition, just four weeks to clock the best week’s worth of climbing that may win you a shiny new watch. Eyebrows were raised this week when one crazy mo’fo went out and climbed 16,000m of vertical in a week. He found a hill and he ran up it, continuously, for 28 hours across the whole week. Now, depending upon your point of view, he’s either dedicated, or a little ‘strange’.
Following his endeavour and a little more ‘vert’ analysis from one of my running friends called ‘Stato the Sheep Sh*gger‘, I decided to investigate if this ‘vert’ thing is all it’s cracked up to be as there are plenty of opinions as to what people should be doing in races like the Buffalo Stampede.
Our little friend from across the ditch in New Zealand looked at the correlation between the amount of ‘vert’ someone did and their finish position in last year’s race. Admittedly this was only a sample of 16, and as he rightly points out, “The more important stats are the amount of running and quality of running that people do. Vert is correlated with distance, so the slower group probably just don’t run as much as the faster group, and without looking they certainly don’t do as much quality.
“Neither Strava or Movescount are conducive to allowing the easy retrieval of kms’, time, vert and number of runs in one go with out very repetitive copy and pastes.”
But it did make for some interesting discussion and opinion on what type of training people should be doing. While everyone acknowledges both are important, people were very clearly divided as to which should take the most dominant position in training.
Downs Vs Ups
As a little personal insight / experience, for last year’s Six Foot Track Trail Marathon, I went into it having done quite a bit specific downhill training as conditioning for my quads – it is afterall a net downhill run. While many people focus on the big climbs in this race, when they reach the top of Pluvi (26kms in), having spent the last 10kms climbing, their quads are fried. Specific downhill running enabled me to push much harder on the next 19kms than I would have been ordinarily able to do. I’m a big fan of lots of quality downhill running and conditioning, but do recognise that hill work is required for strength – in fact, it’s vital.
Running coach Andy DuBois sums up the situation however quite perfectly, “That’s the beauty of the sport – everyone is different – you just need to find out what works for you. Tweaking the amount of hiking, running and the intensity of each in training is where it treads a fine line between science and art in coaching.
“There are so many variables to consider when working out what each athlete will respond best to. For example some people will find that their heart rate is through the roof and lungs are gasping but legs feel ok on a climb whereas others will feel like their legs are fully lactic and struggling to move but heart and legs ok. Each will benefit from completely different training to get closer to their potential.”
The case for vert
No-one’s doubting that you need to train for the uphills in a race. But to what extent? Marcus Warner, a fellow collaborator on this website and president of Skyrunning here down under thinks it plays a big part, “Up front at the Buffalo Stampede last year, it was very evident that the likes of Dakota Jones, Blake Hose and Caine Warburton had superior climbing speeds over a lot of the runners. On the biggest of the climbs they frequently added a 5-15 minute gap over their compatriots, and in the case of the last two climbs, some of the top 20 were taking 20 minutes longer than Dakota to climb back up Mick’s Track.
“Yet if you look at the descending times, the biggest margin between the top 20 was only 10 mins max on the longest descent. So my simple logic is if you can climb efficiently without going into the red zone for too long and can gap your colleagues by 10-20 mins, then they have to do something pretty remarkable or fry their quads on the down to pull away. Watching the elites in Hong Kong (at the Asian Skyrunning Championships) last week and at races like UTMB and Transvulcania, it goes without saying their climbing is what wins them races. All of us got to the bottom at speeds much closer together but were left in their wake going up. So train for both but climb like a demon and your running efficiency over the flatter stuff will improve as well.”
He has a good point. If the gaps between those up front and those behind are biggest over the hills, then surely this lot are spending all day climbing the montanes, as our friend Kilian likes to put it. But is it all about the vert?
For a race like the Buffalo Stampede, which starts and finishes in the same spot, Andy DuBois is pretty forthright on his opinion, “If the course starts and finishes in the same spot downhill training matters FAR more than uphill training. Hypothetically speaking if you had a choice between 10,000m of ascent or 5,000m of descent + speed training, the latter will get you a better result in the race.”
The single biggest reason why you should be seriously considering plenty of downhill running as part of your training plan is that it will ultimately help you in being able to run better and stronger in the latter stages of an ultra-marathon, as I pointed out in my own experience above. With quads that we’re much better conditioned than previous years, I could push the line between giving the uphills a good whack and being close to the redline, yet have enough in the tank to push hard to the finish. This is what I believe downhill conditioning allows you to do.
But, be careful if you want to venture into this for the first time. Being a slightly larger runner at 84kegs, I feel the downhills in a big way. Downhill running places a far greater load on the joints so must be built up gradually. You can start with incorporating downhills in your normal runs until your legs can handle the increased load without any extra post run soreness.
While hill repeats are a great way to increase fitness, what goes up must come down and the downhill section can also be used for a training effect. Instead of walking or jogging back down take a short recovery at the top of the hill then run back down harder than you would. Focus on running easily and taking short strides. Try and land softly and lightly with each stride rather than over striding and thumping your heel into the ground. At this stage you are not running fast downhill just running comfortably. Once your legs and joints are well adapted to running downhill, its time to treat the downhill section as the effort and uphill as the recovery.
Here endth the lesson for today’s ultra runners 🙂