Mountain ultra running training programme

Last updated: 22-Aug-18

By Andy Mouncey

You Can’t Fire A Cannon From A Canoe. All of which basically means you can’t expect to blast up and down mountains if you are a jelly on legs. Ultras – especially mountain ultras – are a full body undertaking which means if all you do is run you’re in for a shock. Torso strength – knee to shoulder – is key to being able to maintain a balanced and upright posture while moving smoothly over uneven ground – oh yes, and not forgetting the capacity to think clearly under competitive pressure for hours and hours.

And you thought it was just running…

Know What’s Coming
In this digital age where sharing seems to be the norm there really is no excuse for not knowing what you’ve let yourself in for. Virtual mapping, race report blogs and course profiles can all be harvested in advance. Get really cute and you can use this to create your own mental map that can be a basis for visualization. This means you’ll be ready for what’s coming without actually having set foot on the ground.

Pole Position
More people have ‘em these days than not – yet most people appear to me not to be able to use them effectively and they just become another bit of shiny gear that adds to the faff factor. Poles can make a significant difference to your climbing and descending efficiency, but only if you know how to harness them to best effect. You wouldn’t buy trainers if you didn’t know how to tie laces, would you?

There are a number of “how to” videos out there, but we liked this one, because it is especially good for pole set-up, hand placement, slow downhill technique and alternating action on a steady uphill gradient.

There are other techniques, but I start with alternating action when coaching because it uses the fundamentals that are the basis for efficient assisted movement. The uphill sequence is a good example of these coaching points:

  • Upright posture
  • Handle tilted forward
  • Pole tip close to ankle
  • Elbows in
  • Pole tip angled backwards

No Gym? No Worries!
Conditioning doesn’t have to happen in a gym and some people hate the things anyway:

  • Riding a bike is a great way to help build climbing leg strength.
  • Steps, stairs and low flat walls can all be used for step ups, box jumps, single leg squats and the like.
  • Fast hiking with a heavy rucksack is a wonderfully-specific way of improving heart and lung function as well as climbing leg power.

RunUltra have gathered some other ideas for you here:

Abs and core


Cross Training

Big Mountains Get Big Weather
That means the minimum kit lists race organisers give you are not there just to piss you off. It means that if you carry and use that kit, and your head, you are less likely to get into trouble which will piss them off as they’re the ones who will have to come and get you when they should be looking after everyone else.

Everything is more extreme a few thousand metres up and it happens and changes faster. Check your forecasts, test your kit and respect your playground.

Bombproof Your Legs
The descents will kill you if you’re not careful. More specifically it’s the progressive onset of impact-related muscle soreness in the upper legs that can reduce grown men, ladies clearly have higher pain thresholds and can ‘Man Up’ much better (!), to whimpering husks. Become skilled, strong and efficient at descending and it’s money, time and smiles in the bank.

That’s completely different from simply embracing gravity, taking the shortest line and throwing caution to the wind: preservation and conservation when racing ultras are the watchwords here.
That means that time-effective ultra-specific mountain training comes as two parts donwhill and one part uphill:

  1. Condition the muscles to take the hammering on the descents.
  2. Minimise the shock of that hammering by developing a smooth, efficient style.
  3. Be able to hike uphill quickly and efficiently with and without poles.

Hill Homework
Hill repeats are a key feature for most running training programmes and most of these have us running up the darn things. Benefits cited list leg strength and power, and getting better at running uphill and feeling incredibly self-righteous afterwards. Personally speaking, if someone offered me those benefits on a plate I’d take ‘em. However if I was seeking to really maximise the use of my limited training time, (a reality for those of us who have to work for a living), I might do it slightly differently.

Walk Up
In ultras, most people slow down on a hill, right? The difference in speed between a fast economical walk and a slow run may be very small. The difference in actual and perceived effort may, however, be considerable. The benefits of a change in style – and in ultras a change really can be as good as a rest – are equally considerable. All of that means that I might choose to get really good at walking up the climbs and accelerating over the top when most people are pre-occupied with sucking air.

Run Down
The sure-fire way of damaging leg muscle tissue quickly and stimulating Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is to embrace gravity with some healthy headlong plummeting. The top British fellracers are superb at this, (see Richard Askwith’s seminal work ‘Feet In The Clouds’) and while the skill and style required to run fast and smooth downhill over the rough stuff is in some ways very different to that required for an ultra race, the bombproofing effect is huge. In short: run fast down, get sore, recover, do it all again.

Photo credit: RunUltra.

Make It Harder
Again, if we’re working with the reality of limited time then progressing by simply doing more and more repeats is only going to get us so far. Strapping on a loaded rucksack will up the training effect by adding more load: more load to haul uphill and more load to compensate for on the descent. Remember the rule when introducing any new stuff: start small and build progressively at a rate you can cope with.

Hold Posture & Form
Taking active control of your posture and running form is another way of minimising the effect of muscle damage. If you’re floating along perfectly balanced and aligned regardless of the terrain under your feet then you’re putting less stress through your tissues and that means you’ll be able to preserve good function for longer.

Just because running per se is a mechanically simple activity that we can all do without much thought doesn’t mean there’s not a bunch of refinements we can make so the action becomes more efficient. Anything you can do to lighten your step is consistent with minimising impact forces and delaying DOMS.

Here’s some stuff you can do to take control of your form:

  • Shorten your stride.
  • Check how loud your footfalls are and switch your focus to running quietly because quiet = efficient.
  • Use car/shop windows to check yourself out as you run past. Are you running tall and symmetrical or resembling some kind of demented banana on legs?
  • Get yourself filmed if you have no windows.
  • Find a role model and either ask nicely to go running with them  and copy what they do. Or if they are really famous, there’s probably a YouTube video.

Training Schedule

To help you with your training. Here is a six week schedule to build up those legs both for the ups and for the downs.

So, Week 1 has six sessions in total: three uphill-themed workouts and three downhill skill-based workouts from the list above, and the workouts get more taxing as the weeks progress.

Health Warning
I would never give this six week program as it is to any of my athletes. I would use it as a framework and then adjust it according to the nature of the race we are preparing for and the relative strengths/weaknesses of my client – and you should do the same. But this will give you some good guidance to get you going.

  Wk 1 Wk 2 Wk 3 Wk 4 Wk 5 Wk 6


3 2 3 2 1 1

 DOWN Conditioning

0 1 2 3 3 4

 DOWN Skill

3 2 1 1 1 0

Downhill Sessions: Least To Most Stressful Skill

  1. Run down smooth-controlled road plus poles
  2. Run down smooth-controlled road no poles
  3. Run down smooth-controlled trail
  4. Run down smooth-controlled trail plus loaded pack


  1. Run down over-stride trail
  2. Run down over-stride trail plus load
  3. Run down road over-stride
  4. Run down road over-stride plus load

Uphill Sessions: Least To Most Stressful

  1. Hike up steady, boots plus poles
  2. Run up smooth-controlled-easy
  3. Power hike up, boots, poles, load
  4. Power hike up, trainers, no poles, load

Other Variables. Fine-tune the sessions above to suit you and your goals by adjusting these variables:

  • Load: Heavy to light weighted pack
  • Gradient: Steep to shallow
  • Speed: Greater than race pace to slower than…
  • Support: Boots with poles to hands-free and trainers
  • Duration: Long to short

This is not a definitive list – you will think of others, and you will find some of these harder/easier and that’s just a function of your relative strengths. Just remember that if you really want to wreck your legs and lower back you are more likely to do so by starting with a workout like this:

Downhill – Heavy Load – Steep – Road – Fast – Without Support – Long – Over Stride

So be smart, heed any overload signs and build up to the outrageous stuff.

Andy Mouncey is an ultra runner, writer and coach. He is to be found at Big and Scary Running. If you would like to contact him his email is [email protected] or telephone +44 (0) 7799 063 115.

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Date Range

Global - Virtual


A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity


An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.



Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.



Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.



Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.