One Dirty Magazine

Big, Sexy Mountain-Running Workouts

Usually, workouts should be controlled and sustainable. Sometimes, though, you need to go for it. PLUS: adaptations for flatlanders.

David Roche August 20th, 2019

Big, Sexy Mountain-Running Workouts

One of the paradoxes of running training is that most of your workouts shouldn’t be all that difficult. That seems like crazy talk, especially if you come from other sports. My personal background was in football, where you’re sometimes considered a weakling if every effort isn’t to failure. Bench press? Rep out until your spotter has to save the day. Windsprints? If you’re not collapsing, you’re not trying. Sub-concussive collisions? If you can remember your own name, you need to do the Oklahoma drill one more time.

I came to running with that mindset, and I spent years unnecessarily launching myself into a brick wall with training. I worked so hard, and I barely progressed. Every tempo run was a race. Interval workouts would be lots of little races. It turns out that if you train for running like many athletes train for the bench press, you won’t progress much and you’ll probably hate the process too. All without supple pecs to soften the blow. (A 2019 study in the journal Sports summarized in Outside by Alex Hutchinson found that training to failure in each workout wasn’t the best option for lifting either).

I spent years unnecessarily launching myself into a brick wall with training. I worked so hard, and I barely progressed. Every tempo run was a race. Interval workouts would be lots of little races. It turns out that if you train for running like many athletes train for the bench press, you won’t progress much and you’ll probably hate the process too.

Emphasize sustainable controlled workouts

The reasoning for an emphasis on sustainable, controlled workouts gets back to how the body actually adapts with training. First, high-intensity intervals to failure predominantly use energy systems like VO2 max that are not that sustainably adaptable. For example, VO2 max increases rapidly at first, then levels off, so hammering intervals around that effort level won’t do much good for aerobic capacity. While it could have other benefits related to improving running economy, those benefits don’t require boiling yourself down to a sticky glaze with tons of intervals. 

Second, too-hard workouts likely recruit more Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are less efficient for long-distance running. This is one of the big problems that football-playing me was likely facing—all of those hard workouts just recruited the muscle fibers from my football days that would never be good in a longer trail race. More relaxed intervals and tempos recruit more Type I slow-twitch muscle fibers, along with intermediate fibers.

Third, burnout is a physiological problem with psychological manifestations. Dreading workouts usually means that they are way too hard and they break down the body too much. I ask athletes to remember that it’s never in your head, even when it feels like it is. Instead, what seems like it’s in your head is actually your body sending signals to your brain. Listen to the signals, leave some time and effort on the table, and come back the next day with extra fire.

The disclaimer

All that stuff I just talked about? It was one big disclaimer. I also used to be a lawyer, so disclaimers send tingles up my spine. The article started with that to make you work before you got what we all came for: the big, sexy workouts.

While most efforts should be sustainable and repeatable, the body also adapts to very hard efforts in moderation. There may be a number of reasons for that.

While most efforts should be sustainable and repeatable, the body also adapts to very hard efforts in moderation. There may be a number of reasons for that. It could be the supercompensation effect, where the physiological bounce-back from break down exceeds linear adaptation models. It could be related to theories of fatigue like the central governor, where the brain plays a role in modulating output based on set-points that can possibly be shifted for some variables. It could just be that hammering yourself sometimes makes you tough as nails.

For mountain running, there is an added benefit to very hard workouts: they prepare the body for the specific demands of very hard races. There’s no way around it—mountain running is hard. Depending on the length of the race, you may fully redline on a climb, approximating one of those football windsprints more than a controlled road marathon. Added to that aerobic stress are the unique demands on the musculoskeletal system, with steep and technical terrain straining muscular output on climbs and muscular resilience on descents. Relaxed hill intervals and tempo runs and long runs can help support the adaptations needed, but some super-hard efforts are probably essential for top performance.

The ground rules

Some ground rules before the almighty listicle begins. Only do super-hard workouts a few times in a training cycle, and no more than once every couple weeks. The body doesn’t need constant reinforcement of adaptations—that just leads to injuries and stagnation.

In addition, races are hard workouts themselves, so make sure that all races are preceded and followed by plenty of recovery. Finally, embrace the discomfort of these workouts. Part of the point is for it to hurt a bit, so lean into that feeling as the old friend it is. 

Without further ado, here are the six biggest mountain-running workouts that I give my athletes, usually in the 10 to 40 days before mountain-running races.


Touching the Sky Power Hour

1 hour moderately hard, ending all out, over steep terrain

The toughest element of mountain running is usually not the leg-searing uphills, but the downhills that shred muscle fibers through eccentric muscle contractions. This workout has benefits for aerobic development and speed, but perhaps the biggest benefit is increasing the body’s resilience through controlled breakdown. Yes, you may get sore. Yes, that’s pretty much the whole point.

I like athletes to do this workout on the steepest terrain possible that is not too technical. Start under control, then play with effort level, practicing the highs and lows of race day. With 10 minutes to go, pick it up even more, giving it most of what you have in a final one- or two-minute push. If you race in the mountains consistently, you probably don’t need to do this workout, outside of a hard effort before the start of the season.

For flatlanders: On a treadmill, alternate between 15-percent grade, 10-percent grade, and flat/down every five minutes for an hour.


The Hill Beast

10/8/6/4/2 minute steep hills moderate/hard to hard with run down easy recovery after each

I have written about this workout before, but it’s so good that it can work for multiple trail-running goals. The hill beast has become a staple for international mountain/skyrunning athletes Meg Mackenzie and Jason Schlarb as a good pre-race reminder of what it means to suffer a bit, with the added benefit of improving muscular endurance for steep climbing. 

Start each interval under control, finishing with a push that makes it venture into hard territory, where you wouldn’t be able to sustain the effort too much longer. Turn around immediately and run back down as if you just crested a climb in a longer race, thinking efficient but not out of control on the descent. At the bottom, turn around and make it happen again. Most athletes say that by the end of the two-minute interval, they couldn’t imagine pushing uphill too much more, and certainly not fast. That’s good—like a weightlifting session, going to the brink of failure can sometimes lead to major growth.

For flatlanders: Set the treadmill on 12-to-15-percent grade and follow the same protocol, with recovery portions half of the length of the preceding interval on flat/down.


Maximum Ouch

5-8 x 3-minute steep hills hard with run down easy/moderate after each

Three-minute hills are a sweet spot where most athletes can sustain very high efforts without having to back off. I have seen athletes set bests for max heart rate in this workout, likely due to it falling in a power-output range that calls on every muscle fiber to sustain.

Clare Gallagher did this workout a few weeks before winning Western States; Matt Daniels did it 17 days before finishing 4th; Drew Holmen 10 days before winning the U.S. 50 Mile Trail Championships (though that could just be coincidence, rather than causation).

Start relaxed, finishing each interval with a push to make it a truly quality effort. After five to 10 seconds with hands on knees, turn around and run back to the start smoothly and quickly, rather than an easy trot. Repeat. You probably don’t want to do more than five unless you are a glutton for punishment and/or tasting bile.

For flatlanders: This is a good one for stairs—push hard for three minutes up with equal easy recovery.


The Pain Train

90-plus-minute easy, steep run with a 20-minute hard run near the end, 1-minute easy recovery, followed by 8 x 30-second hills hard with 30 seconds easy between each

This workout fully engages the aerobic system, building up some residual fatigue and depleting energy stores before the big push. While I’m not usually a big fan of doing workouts on fatigued legs since the goal of training is to improve efficient output, it’s helpful to know the feeling, plus there may be neuromuscular benefits that are important for race day. 

Near the end of a longer run up to 20 miles, do a strong 20-minute tempo, starting around an effort you could sustain for one hour before progressing to a hard finish in the second half. After an easy minute to recover (this can be standing), do 8 x 30-second hill strides hard with equal easy running recovery. The steeper the terrain, the better, as long as you can run with good form. By the end, you’ll feel like you are running in molasses.

For flatlanders: Finish a long run at the gym, doing the tempo on the treadmill at 10-percent grade, and the hill strides at 15-percent grade, with the 30 seconds between hill strides walking at 15=percent grade. 


Satan’s Ladder

6-8 x 2 minutes moderately hard run/hike up steep grade with 1 minute fast run down recovery, finishing with 5 minutes hard uphill and 5 minutes hard downhill

The mix of ups and downs in mountain running is a uniquely difficult stress. Give me a race that’s all up to start and all down to finish, and the results will be way more predictable than a race with a mix of everything. We all know that feeling of turning back uphill after a fast downhill and not having any legs. This workout addresses that feeling.

Run/hike up in a controlled manner, not finishing with the hard efforts like in the past intervals, but around what you could sustain for a half hour. After finishing each interval, immediately turn around and do a fast run back. By the end, you shouldn’t be too fried. Good, because that was just getting the oil hot. Now, do a hard 10-minute tempo with five minutes up, and five minutes back. You’ll finish feeling a bit pounded, so make sure this one has a bunch of recovery afterward.

For flatlanders: Use the treadmill at 12-to-15-percent grade for the hills, with the one-minute intervals and final downhill around 5K effort on 0 percent.


Walk It Out

10-20 x 1 minute moderately hard running/1 minute fast hiking, finishing with an all-out 5 minute run

In mountain running, hiking is one of the most important skills. It’s essential to train hiking specifically (see this article from April), but it’s also needed to train transitioning from hiking to running and back, which can use excess energy if you aren’t used to it. This workout gives athletes a good feel for the transition, letting them practice efficient form, while also getting a supercharged aerobic stimulus.

Run relaxed, around an effort you could do for a half hour. After a minute, hike as fast as you can for the next minute. Repeat that up a long hill, noticing how much your butt and quads start burning on the transitions. For bonus points, end it with five minutes of a truly hard effort, on whatever terrain sounds most fun, uphill or downhill. 

For flatlanders: Do the 1/1 workout at 15-percent grade, and the final five-minute run on 0-percent grade. This workout is good to do on the treadmill even if you live somewhere with mountains.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: all sustainable workouts are alike, all big, sexy workouts are terrible in their own ways. Embrace the terrible.

To paraphrase Tolstoy: all sustainable workouts are alike, all big, sexy workouts are terrible in their own ways. Embrace the terrible.

When you finish these workouts, you may spend the next five minutes wondering why you do this sport, contemplating the horrors you just endured. But then, the magic happens. Despondency may turn into euphoria. And in that post-workout glow, you’ll be ready for anything a mountain race throws at you.


—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.


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11 months ago

Guessing I should be preparing for these to begin showing up on my spreadsheet:)!

11 months ago

Great article, I’m definitely adding these to my arsenal. I’m aiming to run some mountains next year after I recover from my current injury (ps. Injury sucks!)


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