10 training tips for Vertical Kilometre racing

How to prepare your body and mind for the gruelling assault of uphill mountain running.

Matt Maynard tackles the race
Matt Maynard tackles the race© iancorless.com

The past 15 years or so have seen a spike in the popularity of Vertical Kilometre racing - the practice of running uphill as fast as possible. The format is simple: competitors charge up steep mountains climbing 1000m over a course usually no longer than 5km.

Introduced this year as part of the UK Skyrunner® Series, the Salomon Mamores VK™ race in Glen Coe, Scotland is Britain's first ever VK event. Matt Maynard took part in the race this weekend (September 16-18). Here are his tips on how to train for it.

Salomon Mamores VK™ competitor Francois Gonon
Salomon Mamores VK™ competitor Francois Gonon© iancorless.com

1. Find a hill and stick with it

You need more than aerobic fitness and fast flat road running to do well in the VK race. But you don’t need to move to the Alps to train. Simply choose a local hill and sprint up it. Sprints should vary in duration from 8-15 seconds. At the end of each repeat, jog slowly back down before beginning the next effort.

This is meant to be a maximum intensity workout, but I always find getting out of bed on Uphill Day rather awful. If struggling with motivation, it’s better to get a session in at a lower intensity or with fewer reps than leaving the curtains shut and the running shoes untouched.

Vertical by name, vertical by nature
Vertical by name, vertical by nature© guillemcasanova.com

2. Tread light

When Edmund Hillary climbed Everest in 1953, he famously said that, "one pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back." This disproportionate relationship has since been shown to be true in various studies. 

I chose the Inov-8's Talon 212 shoe. Weighing in at (you guessed it) 212g, its lightness was ideal. Its soft rubber also loves chewing on the steep grassy terrain found on the Salomon Mamores VK™ course, and the shoe’s upper section is strong and rip resistant around the toe area where so many other brands meet their end.

 

The course is steepest in the middle section
The course is steepest in the middle section© Harvey Maps

3. Study the route

The Salomon Mamores VK™ climbs 1,000m over its 5km route, but some VK climbs gain that height in just 1.92km! Knowing the route means you will be able to break down the challenge mentally. Studying a topographical map or elevation profile that shows the relative steepness of the terrain will give you an idea of where you will be able to run and where you will have to walk.

There were sections where I knew I would be clawing with my hands. On the day, however, the most nerve-jangling part was the flat 600m sprint at the start past the crowds!

Who says you can't race in a kilt?
Who says you can't race in a kilt?© guillemcasanova.com

4. Prepare your mind

If you can run 10Km on flat ground in an hour it should take you two to three hours to complete a VK route. The effort level is also similar to a 10km flat race. You should be prepared to work at near maximum heart-rate, achieving the kind of breathlessness that means you'll struggle to say “hello” to supporters. (The world record for the VK is 29minutes and 42 seconds.)

A couple of Spanish friends were near the summit cheering me on – I was trying so hard that I was unable to say “Hola!”

The view down summit ridge to Kinlochleven
The view down summit ridge to Kinlochleven© iancorless.com

5. Eat right

You will need to eat your last meal two-three hours before the race. Don’t drink water in the last hour. Experiment with a caffeine energy gel just before your hill sprint training sessions. If your stomach responds well, have one just before competing. I used an SIS caffeine gel because it’s easier to swallow and a little less viscous than other brands.

 

Short strides help economise energy
Short strides help economise energy© iancorless.com

6. Take a deep breath

The Salomon Mamores VK™ is a time-trial where competitors begin every 30 seconds, racing against the clock to the summit. Complete a high-intensity warm-up that gets you breathing heavily. With one minute to go until your gate time, take deep, calming breaths and reassure yourself that all your training is about to pay off.

The final rocky sprint for the summit
The final rocky sprint for the summit© iancorless.com

7. Take small strides

The first section of the route is 600m of flat fast road. After this you are onto an uphill but runnable trail. Take short strides to economise energy. 

Often during hilly races I’ve been passed whilst running by people walking. This time I knew better, and at around the halfway point it was time to power hike.

The VK is no ordinary race
The VK is no ordinary race© iancorless.com

8. Power hike

Current VK World Record holder Urban Zemmer rarely runs during competition. Studies have shown that on inclines steeper than 28%, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking.

Lean your weight over your hips and push hard on your leading leg. Some thigh-length running shorts now have grippy rubber printed over the material. The idea is that you can push down harder on your legs without your hand slipping and thereby transfer more power through your arms and into your legs. Some VK competitors also use walking poles.

Or, better still  – get into the hills and practise your power hiking!

Supporters gather on the summit ridge
Supporters gather on the summit ridge© iancorless.com

9. Give everything you have

Most VK races finish on a mountain summit — such as Na Grugaichean on the Salomon Mamores VK™. During the last five minutes of racing you no longer need to worry about pacing yourself — accelerate until gasping for breath, ensuring you finish with nothing left in the tank. After summiting, wrap up quickly with warm clothes. Eat a snack as you steadily make your way down, and don't forget to cheer your fellow competitors as you go.

Competitor Francois Gonon sucks in air
Competitor Francois Gonon sucks in air© guillemcasanova.com

10. Bring a cowbell

This race may be the first of its kind in the UK, but VK has been popular on the continent, particularly in France, for years. At races like Chamonix, Partisan Tour De France-size crowds gather on the mountains and ring cowbells to show their support. Bring a little Alpine va-va-voom to your first VK by arming your cheerleaders with the right tool for the job!

Matt completed the VK in 33rd place of 160 competitors, with a time of 00:56:19. Follow him on Twitter.

Written by Matt Maynard