This September the World Mountain Running Championships will descend upon the beautiful forest of Betws-y-Coed, Wales. Teams from across the globe will send their best runners to fight it out on the trails for the coveted title of ‘world champion’. It will be something for the UK running scene to behold. The last time the UK hosted the championships was back in 1995 (Edinburgh) and before that 1988 (Keswick). See a full list of countries to stage the championships and race winners HERE.
So what’s the WMRA (World Mountain Running Association) form of mountain running all about? Firstly, the courses are marked so there is no need to navigate (unless the weather gets really bad) and secondly they are held over generally very runnable terrain. Some races are uphill-only and others are both up-and-down. WMRA races are regularly very fast affairs, with leading runners often coming from track and/or road running backgrounds. This year’s world championships in Wales are being held on an up-and-down, lapped course.
There are many famous mountain races steeped in history. Snowdon, held in Wales, attracts international athletes every year, while Sierre-Zinal, in Switzerland, is a classic. The races are incredibly competitive. Here in the UK, many talk about the impact Kenny Stuart made on the mountain running stage. Indeed, Kenny won the short course world title in 1985. Kenny was also famed for his superlative road times (2:11 marathon, 62:55 half marathon and 28:51 10k). Other famous mountain running names include Jonathan Wyatt (New Zealand) Marco De Gasperi (Italy), Petro Mamu (Eritrea) and Joe Gray (US).
What do all these guys have in common? Answer: They are all fantastic roadrunners and do a lot of speed work training. By ‘fantastic’ I mean most, if not all, have run sub 30 minutes for 10k and 14 minutes or less for 5k. Look back at the training logs of these guys and you will see they dedicate time to speed work. It’s quite clear that such speed work translates well into the mountains. Many an article has been written about the benefits of doing hill work but we must not forget that speed is also a vital ingredient for stronger uphill running.
Speed work is often the session that is dropped in the week or the session people avoid. Personally, I love speed work sessions. Having been an out-and-out off-road runner for 10 years, I previously swerved away from doing speed sessions. However, since implementing them consistently into my training plan I have seen some big improvements in my performances over all courses, including mountain races. My top tips for speed work:
Warm-up/cool down thoroughly
It’s crucial to get warmed-up prior to a speed session. I always aim for at least 20 minutes of easy running before then doing a few stride-outs. This all helps get the muscles loosened off. Also, post-session, ensure a decent amount of easy running is completed before stretching. Again, I aim for 20 minutes.
Working on your speed will be far more effective if you train with a partner or a group. Ideally, you will be of a similar level so you can push one another in your sessions. I’ve found that group training can be particularly motivating. It also helps with motivation throughout the winter months.
Speed work can make training far more interesting. I like a variety of sessions, including short repetitions, longer tempo reps or a simple fartlek. Mix it up. Here’s a brief description of the main types:
‘Reps’ as they are known should be done with caution. They are periods of intense, hard running at your 5k pace or faster. They are shorter in distance (between 200m and 1200m) and recovery periods can be short (30-90 seconds) or of an equal time or distance to the reps. Running harder than your race pace for short periods not only improves speed but also allows you to work on your running form. When you’re pushing hard in a reps session, it’s important to concentrate on things like arm/hand motion, posture and stride/cadence. Aim to keep these in check during training and optimize them for efficiency. This will make it easier to keep your form on race day. Attempt reps only after you’ve tried other forms of speed work first.
Tempo sessions are usually longer than ordinary intervals. They range between 90 seconds and 10 minutes each. They should be run a little slower than your 5k effort/pace. Similar to threshold runs -they are designed to raise the point at which lactic acid builds up in the muscles.
Fartlek is Swedish for ‘speed play’ and is my favourite type of speed work session. It can be done anywhere – on grass, trails, road or a mixture of all. Put simply, it is surges of hard running followed by periods of easy running. As a mountain runner, I like my fast surges to be on the ascents on hilly trails and then I take it easier on the descents, or vice versa. Use features such as lampposts or trees as markers, which signal the start and finish lines of your surges. Also, vary up the distances of your surges during your fartlek session. This is a great introduction into speed work -and a lot of fun.
Don’t overdo it
Like with any facet of your training, it is important to do speed work, particularly for the mountains, but don’t over do it. Running hard puts big strains on your body, so allow sufficient recovery time.
Consistency is key
As with training in general, if you are consistent with your speed work you will reap far more dividends from it than if you just do the odd session here and there. Analyse your current training and identify how much ‘hard’ work you’re doing; then ensure that speed work is part of that effort. Layer on the efforts week after week. In the famous words of three-time Tour de France winning cyclist Greg LeMond ‘it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.’