“Vert,” short for vertical elevation gain, is becoming a buzzword in the trail running community as much as other commonly used terms such as mileage or pace. With GPS technology becoming more readily available in running watches or in phone apps like Strava or Garmin Connect runners can easily track their vertical gain on any given run.
This statistic is especially important for trail runners who train specifically for races that feature hilly terrain and need to measure how much “vert” they achieve in workouts, or cumulative “vert” in training cycles. In this article, I share my tips on when and how to include “vert” into your training schedule, as well as provide my top three virtual vertical gain challenges in which you can participate.
[PRO TIP] Want to learn more trail running specific terms? Read my Trail Runner’s Vocabulary article.
When Should You Count Vert?
If Your Goal Race Has Vert
In order for your body to handle vertical terrain on race day, you need to train specifically for it. Similar to how you prepare your body for race day by performing workouts at paces and distances specific to your race, vertical terrain should also be a focus if this is one of the features of the race course. Running uphill and downhill both provide unique challenges, apply different stresses to your body than flat running and require skills that are best developed through running hills. For any trail race, I suggest researching the elevation profile of the course and trying to match the amount of vert in your training with that of the race. Study the course’s major climbs (and know where they are in the race), and run similar climbs in your training. This can be extremely important for your pre race planning because you’ll get a more accurate gauge of how long you’ll be on course and what pace you can expect to run on different kinds of slopes. Keep in mind that an uphill mile might take twice as long (or even more!) as a flat mile and this is dependent on both the terrain underfoot and the percentage grade. Even some downhill miles might not be as fast as flat miles if they are technical and require you to slow down and closely watch where you plant your feet.
You Want a Fresh Challenge
For some runners, committing to a running challenge for the season is a great way to stay motivated. Many runners do this by setting monthly mileage goals, but adding or setting “vert goals, can also prove to be a fun inclusion. Counting how much vert you can accumulate in a week, month, year, etc., will provide a challenge that is different from many of the classic running challenges you might have already tried. Set your vert goals based on how much climbing you think you can reasonably attain in the area where you live and run. In certain regions, like the Rocky or Appalachian mountains, it might be possible to accumulate 1,000 feet of elevation gain or more on any given trail run even if it is as short as two or three miles.. In flatter areas, you may have to adjust your goals or spend more time planning routes to actively seek out hills.
[PRO TIP] A great way to accumulate vert quickly is to run intervals on steep hills! Climb, descend, and repeat.
You Want to Get Stronger in the Off-Season
Even if you’re not training for a race with lots of vert, it can be beneficial to train with hills in your “off-season.” Off-seasons, or periods where you don’t plan to race, are great times to try different types of workouts that build more general fitness, develop your aerobic system, and overall make you stronger. This way you’ll arrive at your racing season feeling fresh, strong, and avoid overuse injuries. Running hills is one of the best ways to make such improvements. Hill running strengthens large muscle groups and sharpens your core, improves balance, builds your cardiovascular system, prepares you to run higher volumes, and much more. Incorporating hill training into your off-season training plan will set you up with a strong base leading into a season of any style of running, whether it be flatter trail racing, cross country, skyrunning, etc.. Try incorporating one or two hilly runs per week or include a weekly session of hill intervals in your off-season.
Tips On How to Incorporate Vert in Your Training Cycle
Prepare For Extra Running Time
Running uphill inevitably takes longer than running on flat ground, sometimes significantly more so. Take for example runners at the annual Pikes Peak Marathon held in Manitou Springs, Colorado, a course which features a whopping 7,800 feet of vertical gain. Most of these runners reach the top of the mountain, the half marathon mark, in the time it would take them to run a full road marathon. For those who don’t train hills, it may take even longer! Expect to run less miles and consider measuring your runs by time instead of miles.
Take the Downhills Easy
When you first start incorporating hills into your training, it can be easy to get carried away on the downhills and run them too fast. Downhill running might feel easy because it requires less effort from your cardiovascular system than running uphill, but it induces heavy muscular soreness due to its repetitive single-legged eccentric muscular contractions. Keep in mind that you might not feel soreness from downhill running until the day after because of a phenomena known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). I suggest starting your hill training by pushing on uphills and taking downhills easy. Slowly add sessions of faster downhill running once or twice per week to allow your body to adapt without causing excessive soreness or muscular injuries.
Try Every Kind of Hill
Hills can vary greatly and provide unique challenges. Some hills are very steep and short, while others are long and gradual. The trail underfoot can also vary from sandy, snowy, muddy, rocky, smooth, etc. Explore the hills in your area and get a feel for the many different types of terrain. Teaching your body to run hills of different lengths, grades and terrain types will make you a more versatile trail runner. Trail races can have a variety of hills and it’s important that you’re ready for anything and everything on race day.
Change Your Pace
A well established training principle respected by many running coaches is to train at different paces on a consistent basis. This holds true with flat, uphill and downhill running. Running hills at the same pace all the time won’t teach your body how to run these hills at faster paces. In order to adapt to running hills faster, you need to accumulate time running at faster paces. For many of us, we fall in a habit of running at our routine “easy” pace and rarely deviate from it. Even if it’s only for a few seconds or minutes, try speeding up from your normal “easy” pace on both uphills and downhills. These pace changes will stimulate your body to make adaptations so you can one day run “easy” at faster paces.
To improve your pace uphill, include drills such as “hill sprints” or busts of twenty to thirty seconds of fast uphill running on a steep, short hill. If you have access to longer hills, try a longer hill workout where you push uphill for two to five minute intervals. You can also perform these same two types of intervals on downhills, but do so sparingly as downhill running produces more soreness!
Below are my top three “vert” challenges you can participate in if you’re interested in adding more hills to your training!