Coaching, Training Plans, Tips
James Stewart, Performance Coach at Couch->Summit Performance Coaching, and Director of the Vancouver VK Series, offers specialised coaching for Vertical focused athletes, and if you sign up for coaching you will get free entry into the series (or a refund if you’ve already paid). Cost is $160 per month. This is the best option if you are serious about getting faster in trail running and VK courses.
About James James has raced VK races all over the world including a two-time finisher of the epic K3 (Triple Vertical KM 9km +3000m) race in Susa Italy. He’s also been a 1st place finisher in Vertical races in Australia, a 2nd place in the Verticale du Criou vertical Mile (1500m+) race in Samoens France. A 31st place at the 2015 Sky Running European Championships Mont Blanc Vertical KM in Chamonix France against all the greatest VK athletes in the world (picture on right), and a 21st place in the Mont Blanc Marathon two days later (a field of 2000 individuals). James’ Grouse Grind PB is 29:35 and in the 2019 Multi-Grind he completed 18 Grinds in 19 hours (average time per Grind 47 mins) surpassing the old record of 17-in-a-day.
James also puts together customised training plans if you would like a cheaper option than coaching.
For the 2023 VK Series, James is offering customised 6-month, or 12-month training plans specifically tailored to improving your VK performance. Each training plan will come with a detailed training manual helping to educate you on the training process, so you completely understand the training ahead of you. The manual also helps you to know when to adjust your training volumes on the fly and how to manage your training intensities as your fitness evolves.
As an experienced performance coach, James acutely understands the drawbacks of "cookie-cutter" one-size-fits-all training plans. Each person has different and varying training histories, scheduling commitments/complications, and levels of fitness. It's also hard for inexperienced athletes to understand their limitations and also to determine whether a fixed training plan would be suitable at all for them.
To solve this problem, upon purchase of the training plan, James will first send you a detailed questionnaire to fill in, and then after several days of processing your answers, he will send you back the custom created training plan, completely tailored for your current athletic ability, circumstances (such as hours available to train each week), and also setup to meet any other races/goals you have for the summer.
The decision as to whether you go with Coaching or a Training Plan depends on how serious you are with your training, your goals, and also your financial situation. If finances are not a problem or your schedule is unknown, then going with coaching would be the best choice. With hands-on coaching James adjusts your training on a weekly basis to meet your scheduling, monitoring closely how your body responds to the training, and also supports you with all facets of the training/health process (such as nutrition, biomechanics, self-care etc...), and unlimited consultation. With a training plan, you will receive the full season of training in advance without alterations through the season. During the monthly free consultation, we can discuss how your body is responding to the training and he will advise on how you can best alter the training progression for yourself (if required).
With the training plan, James also offers one free email consultation per month to answer any questions you have about the training process.
6-month personally tailored VK Training Plan + Detailed Training Manual + 1 Free Email Consult/month - CAD$250
12-month personally tailored VK Training Plan + Detailed Training Manual + 1 Free Email Consult/month - CAD$450
VK’s True Test of Athleticism and Power. Vertical KM’s are test of athleticism but also mental toughness and mental resiliency. You need both components to run well in VK’s. Uphill focused running requires good old fashioned hard training and close to maximal efforts sustained for the entire duration of the run. You will have to learn to make friends with the “Pain Cave”, but you could always just hike for fun too!
A word of caution…VK’s can be highly addictive! For many trail and recreational road or track runners, VK’s can be completely different to anything you’ve ever experienced before. Some people find VK’s the toughest, most challenging, and sometimes painful races they’ve done. There is some degree of masochism involved. But something incredible also happens. Despite the fact your lungs are burning, your legs are on fire, and you are gasping for breath for the entire duration of the race, many people absolutely love the experience, and they keep coming back! VK and uphill races have had a massive surge in popularity over the past decade. Probably because…
VK’s Are Not Only a Great Challenge but they are Great for Your Health. Uphill running has tremendous benefits for your cardiovascular system, but also for strengthening your hips, back, core, and lower body. Uphill running also takes less toll on your body so you can bounce back sooner. You also feel great after doing it. If you use poles, VK racing gives a full body workout. We can’t think of too many other activities that give you as much “bang for your buck” as a VK effort will! Just make sure you don’t overdo the high-intensity too often. Our series is also designed to reward athletes who do a lot of efforts at low-intensity (see Power Rankings).
Prepare to work at Near your Maximum Heart Rate. VK’s involve super steep climbs where athletes must maintain a steady state effort - a high-level of sustained effort approaching 80-90% of maximum Heart Rate - for anywhere from 30 minutes (for elites) to an hour or two for recreational runners depending on the course, conditions, and your experience and fitness levels. For mere mortals, it will be a great achievement and feeling of fulfillment to complete a course. Push the pace to your level of comfort, but don’t be afraid of feeling the burn a little bit.
In VK races pace management is crucial. Aerobically it is very easy to just tip over the edge in a VK. The lure of a short-race sometimes makes runners go at maximum effort from the start, but beware of starting too fast to avoid hitting the wall after about 10-15 minutes. It takes practice to train your body to climb for a long duration of time without respite, and you need to know how to best pace your effort. The best results will be achieved by maintaining a consistent pace that is not too fast and not too slow. Some trial and error will be required. The best teacher is just getting out there and trying it and experimenting!
Watch Your Weight. Power-to-weight ratio is a crucial aspect of uphill running performance and the key to VK success. The heavier you are, the more energy and force you need to provide to climb at the same speed as a lighter runner. To go uphill faster you can either gain more power or become lighter. Both would be ideal.
Skip the Big Meal Before. You may feel you need to fuel up bigtime before a VK effort up a big hill, but for a VK simply making sure you have eaten enough the day before is sufficient. You can race a VK successfully on an empty stomach early in the morning. I’ve done this many times myself. Your glycogen stores have enough fuel to sustain a VK effort unless it’s taking you over 60 minutes. Ideally, you should be racing with your muscle glycogen stores fully fuelled, but with little food in your stomach. If you do, it might come back up pretty quickly on the mountain or getting a “side stitch.” My strategy is to not eat anything substantial within 3-hours and only minor grazing on easy digesting Fruit up until 1-hour to go. I also stop water 30-minutes before. I may occasionally have an energy gel or a couple of dates or ½ a very ripe banana and a sip of water just before starting after my warm-up.
Consider Carrying Water. When I solo run a VK course (not a race with an aid station at the finish) I will often run up and back down without any water, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re an elite athlete who gets up and down pretty quickly. It’s summer and it’s going to get hot out there. So, most people will need to carry some water. I urge you to err on the side of caution, too much is better than too little. With time you can refine how much you need to take up the mountain with you. The less weight you carry the faster you will go, however. Carry water in a lightweight pack quickly accessible from the front pouches. Don’t carry water in your hands, because you will need your hands to climb sections of our mountain courses, and also use your hands to push off your quads (or for poles if you use them).
Don’t Skip a Proper Warm-up. It is crucial for a VK effort to complete a moderate to high-intensity warm-up that gets you breathing heavily. You can get away without a warm-up in a lot of different longer trail races and efforts, but warming up before a high intensity VK effort is absolutely crucial. Attempting to push hard right at your limit without a proper warm-up can cause health issues. Furthermore, you will also run a slower time than your potential, because your body will spend the first 5-10 minutes of the VK adjusting to the shock of going from zero to 100 and getting the blood pumping to your extremities. Rapidly shocking your body into high-intensity work also causes a much earlier onset of muscle fatigue from lactic acid. You simply won’t perform to your best ability. Read my longer article on Warming up here for more information.
Don’t Fear a Steep Hill. No top VK athlete fears a steep hill, they are excited by the challenge of conquering it. Never let any uphill scare you! You should always have respect for the uphills you will encounter, but don’t fear them. You will get to the top!
Comparative to 10km Training (Almost!). The level of effort in VK’s is often stated as comparable with a 10-kilometre run since the world records for both a VK and 10km are slightly under 30-minutes (give or take a few minutes). The level of cardio-respiratory fitness required is similar but there are two distinct differences. In 10km flat races, running economy is more crucial, but in VK’s because of the steep gradients, a runner must develop as much upward thrust power as possible.
Build the Foundation First. Athlete’s might find better development from efficiently training their aerobic capacity before training for fast climbs. However, if you have a history of injury from flat fast running, you might be better served to focus on uphill training to strengthen your biomechanics. Some VK specialists in Europe, are very top level 10km runners, while others don’t run much at all and focus solely on climbing training. Either way, high intensity work is most effective when layered on top of a strong aerobic and muscular strength base. Don’t jump right into high-intensity training early in your training program for VK’s. Spend a lot of time developing mechanical strength by climbing a lot of volume at easy intensity at a pace where you could easily hold a conversation and breathe only through your nose. Speed can improve rapidly off a solid aerobic base.
Once the Foundation is Built Add Two Sessions of Intensity a Week. Once a foundation of general fitness and strength is built over a month or two, it will be time to introduce high intensity work. Our recommendation for high-intensity training is only performing 2 high intensity sessions for every 10 training sessions you perform (also known as the 80/20 rule). That means the other 8 sessions should be performed at low-intensity. Another good rule is to split high intensity sessions apart by 72 hours (3 days of rest). Focus on quality over quantity. 1-2 quality sessions a week is all you need, so don’t fall into the trap of doing more, because your body needs rest to adapt to the training loads. Studies have shown more than 2 intensity sessions a week will either plateau your progression or send you spiralling backwards from fatigue. As you get fitter and closer to your race effort, you can gradually increase the reps and time in those two intensity workouts (i.e. more time at high intensity in those two sessions, rather than more sessions a week). The core emphasis should be on developing your body how to move efficiently at high pace, rather than overtaxing your system.
One Short – One Long High Intensity Session. Begin intensity work with 30-30’s. A form of fast high intensity interval training whereby you run at a high tempo and speed for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds recovery (either stopped or slow walking) on a really short steep climb. Repeat this in a couple of blocks of a few minutes spread apart with a longer 5-minute break of rest. Remember to warm-up first before starting the intensity work! Eventually increase the amount of intensity time you accumulate and begin to extend the time to 1-minute on, or 2-minutes on, with a longer 2-minute recovery. The other weekly intensity session should be on a longer climb, with intervals in the range of ~8 minutes to help develop your capacity to hold pace for a longer duration of time. 2-minute recovery between intervals longer than 1-2 minutes is the gold-standard. Cool down with low intensity for 10-15 minutes to conclude the session.
Don’t Skip the Long Runs. A weekly long run of up to 2:30 hours is also important to build fitness and endurance. Start by gaining some experience and strength on big hills. Do lots of general runs and hiking, where you focus on consistent rhythm when climbing and get to understand where your strengths and weaknesses are.
Recover every fourth week. Train in blocks of three weeks, and on the fourth drop the volume by 50% and skip the high intensity sessions to give your body rest it needs to hit the next block harder than the previous one. This strategy more than any will take your development to the next level. Push your body hard during training blocks but also respect it and give it bouts of rest every month.
Keep Training Specific. To do well on VK courses, a good general rule is that the bulk of your training should be on similar terrain and match the gradients of the VK courses you will race on. Basically, a lot of time training on steep hills developing your aerobic base. This will help develop muscular strength and body mechanics, while developing the right technical skills required to race well. It’s important to mix it up so you're not hitting the same hill over and over again though. Give your climbing muscles the chance to recover, while continuing to develop your aerobic capacities. On days between the hill-specific workouts, it’s still important to include some running training on flat or rolling/undulating terrain.
Alternatives. Many athletes don’t have time during the week to train on hills and mountains. These athletes can make use of lunges, box step ups (even on a chair or bathtub), small road hills/includes, stairs or anything local that can simulate the demands of uphill training. You can perform some of your intensity work on flat terrain and flat sprints. All these tactics can help to some degree.
Vary the gradient, distance, terrain and speed, in your training. This is important because every VK race is different and unique. Our courses have been chosen to give a good mix of challenging demands for a trail runner. Some courses require you to climb up then descend early or late, while others have steep sections, then flatter longer periods.
Bringing it Together for a Race Effort. Leading up to a race paced effort, keep training sessions below 60 minutes so you are sharp and ready for race day. I like to do a priming high-intensity session about 3-4 days out, typically I like to do hill sprints of around 10 x 1 minute with a 2-3 minute recovery. Then easy flat shakeout runs for 20-30 mins in the following days before the race effort to keep the legs active but feeling fresh and ready to go.
We’re all a little Different. If you watch any VK race you guaranteed to see several different techniques in use. Some runners find the most efficient way up the hill is to run with short, light-footed steps, while others prefer to take long strides. You will have to experiment to find the technique that best suits your body and physical capabilities, but don’t be afraid to use different techniques throughout a race as the gradients and terrain change.
You Can Run, But Probably Won’t Much. VK’s often involve more hiking than running. Running on a VK can be the quickest way to get to the top… but on the longest of climbs you will find that only the elite runners are able to keep running efficiently to the summit. Everyone else will have to transition to some form of walking or power hiking. If you’ve only ever trained to run on gentle slopes, once you hit steep trails you’re going to be forced to a hike at some point. With running work on landing on your forefoot, keeping your pelvis high, your shoulders back and looking upward slightly. Some elites in Europe do sometimes choose to do a high cadence running style with success on very steep terrain but it requires a very specific technique and phenomenal calf endurance and lightweight build. Saul Padua (dressed in all Black) demonstrates it in this clip from the Dolomites VK:
Hiking can be faster than running in VK’s. Former VK World Record holder Urban Zemmer rarely ran during competition, but he only focused on the steepest VK races. Studies have shown that on inclines steeper than 30%, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by power hiking in comparison with running. It simply becomes more efficient in terms of energy conservation and speed to power hike, and yes the Europeans have done studies on this in the lab to confirm!
Practice power hiking in your training with hands on thighs and knees. This technique is used when not using poles and is highly effective and energy-efficient. Lean your weight over your hips and push hard on your leading leg. Pushing down onto your knees and thighs helps to generate some additional climbing power to propel you forwards and upwards. Good technique involves customizing the stride length to the terrain, leaning forward, but looking upward and maintaining relaxed deep breathing. Utilizing your arms properly is crucial for climbing fast but can be a body part often overlooked in running. If you’re doing it properly, your triceps should feel a workout.
Definitely Consider Poles on Steep Courses. Poles used to be called cheating sticks and some people still think this, but don’t listen to them. If you have the technique and know how to use them, go for it. Using poles can save up to 30-40% of load on your legs transferring some of the power generation effort into your arms. Most of the top European mountain runners use poles during VK races and there is no shame in it. Many VK specialists in Europe have a Ski Mountaineering background and are very well adapted to using poles, but you certainly don’t have to use them! As gradients become steeper, poles offer an advantage to climb faster with less energy cost, as they help balance the center of gravity and thus provide a more advantageous position.
Using poles is like four-wheel drive. It all comes down if you know how and when to use poles to increase your climbing efficiency. If you’re new to using poles, its likely they will slow you down at first until you learn the proper technique. Some people never get the hang of them. We recommend trying them if you’re serious about improving your climbing performance, particularly on the steeper VK courses. As a rule you want a lightweight carbon trail running Z-pole with the length at elbow height. Some elites use shorter poles on steeper courses. Another method is multiplying your height in cm by .68 and rounding down to the nearest 5cm.
Correct Pole Technique. In general, try not land the poles too often in-front of you as this can create a slight braking force, but on steeper sections you can pull yourself up. In most cases, the poles should land behind you so that you can PUSH forward with your hands, like you do when getting out of a chair. Pole technique is in time with your stride and the greater benefits come from a precise rhythm. You can use either a single pole forward or double pole forward technique. Watch videos of the elites in Europe to learn their techniques. You can see Pole use demonstrated in the Dolomites VK by three of the fastest ever VK athletes (Urban Zemmer, Philip Goestch, and Kilian Jornet). All three use different styles at different times as demonstrated in the video below (watch it specifically at the 58 second mark).
Pole Based Power Hiking (Nordic style). To help develop your technique, consider practicing what in Norway they call “ski-walking”, where you walk with long steps and swing your arms back and forward to propel your body forwards and upwards. Land with heels first, looking forward and hips high. Video demonstration here (watch from 15:44 the uphill part):
Frequently Switch Climbing Techniques. Elite runners assess the steepness and technicality of upcoming terrain and alter their cadence, climbing style, and customize their stride length to the terrain to maximise their climbing efficiency. Knowing what to choose comes with experience and practice. Long and steep races are very difficult, but it’s all about efficiency. Sometimes it is far more efficient to walk! Aim to run for as long as possible if you can unless its really steep. A good climber knows when to switch to hiking to maintain rhythm, speed and climbing pace. You want to avoid building up too much lactic acid and switching techniques really helps to offset muscular fatigue.
Train Both Styles. I recommend short 5-10 minute intervals swapping between fast, high cadence running steps on your forefoot, and long, lunge like power hiking strides. Alternating between power hiking and running gives different muscle groups some level of rest, while you are still maintaining your climbing speed. Another thing I like to do is run until I can’t (rest for 1-2 minutes) then go again, until I can’t. Repeat this process. Your calves will probably be sore for a few days afterwards until you develop the strength to endure it. Take the progression slow so you don’t cause an injury.
Test Your Running and Power Hiking Speed. You might want to test out what technique is the most efficient for you on different kinds of terrain and varying gradients. You can practice both running and power hiking the same climb and time yourself – which is faster for you? Do repeats on the same hill using both techniques and time them.
Imagine Yourself Being Pulled Uphill. When the climb gets really tough, trick your brain by imagining there is a rope around your waist and is slowly pulling you uphill. It allows to keep your chest up and your pelvis high encouraging a more efficient stride frequency.
VK’s Encourage and Develop Good Running Form. VK’s are a great starting point for runners getting into trail running. Uphill focused running encourages and develops proper running form and helps strengthen the body for the demands of longer trail running formats and events. Because of the positioning of your hips and strides, its hard for bad habits to take over as they would running on flat terrain. If you have a history of injury, you can focus solely on uphill running for a year or two until you develop greater biomechanical efficiency. All you have to do is climb a lot, the mountain will force proper technique over time.
There is nowhere to hide in a VK. You can't fake a good performance. Uphill running requires you to be fit and to have strong power output from your hips, core and lower leg muscles. Those athletes who develop these capacities will rise to the top, those who don’t, simply won’t be able to climb fast enough.
Strengthen Your Core. Good climbing power comes from a strong core. All the best runners have a super strong core. You don’t need to go to a gym to improve your core strength, as exercises can be done at home. We recommend increasing your ability to hold both then straight-arm and traditional planks and also a strong focus on posterior chain work (bridges, glute raises etc…). A good daily routine would be 15-30 minutes of planking, pull ups, pushups, and posterior chain exercises.
Your Calves and Achilles Tendons Will be Fine. …but only if you take care of tightness in your calves. Uphill racing requires a lot of calf strength and loose calf muscles. Most people who sit all day or run pavement a lot have tight calf muscles and is why most people who start running end up with calf pain and injury. Also, the Achilles Tendon is one of the strongest tendons in the body. It doesn’t flex much, so if you’re feeling pain in the tendon, its because muscles in your lower legs are constantly pulling on it. The tendon pain is the symptom not the cause! Don’t treat the Achilles tendon, instead the muscles you need to treat will be your Soleus and Calf muscles. Use the knee of your other leg to self massage your calves, or use a lacrosse or trigger point ball to work out the tight spots.
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