I’ve run a few mountain races in my time, some I seem to have paced really well, finishing strong, others I’ve barely been able to run through the finish line. My typical pattern is to run so hard up the climb that I’m too tired to descend well leading to a fall or a disheartening number of people overtaking me on the descent.

So how do you pace a mountain race? Running up mountains is completely different from road running; it’s pointless even in training to train to pace, in fact my coach gives all my training goals in minutes and hours. However, if you know a particular course well and have trained on it several times (or even run the race before) you might have a good idea of how long it will take on race day. If you’re new to trail running (or like me you struggle with pacing) here are a few tips that can help.

The Terrain

The terrain of a mountain race will dictate the pace. You will need to adapt your pace to the terrain: flat(ish) sections on good well worn paths or tracks can be run quickly; steep, technical uphills may require walking; steep technical downhills may (depending on your descending ability) require careful steps.

The more climb over the shorter distance the harder (and slower) it is going to be; the more you might have to walk/hike. The best way to find out about the terrain of a race is to run the course (or some of it) in training runs. This can help you plan the best lines in unflagged races and help you think about which bits you might be better walking rather than running.

If running on the course is not an option, having a good look at a map of the course and a profile can give you a good idea of what to expect. Depending on the race, this might be a quick look at the pin up at the meeting point, or hours scanning OS (or equivalent) maps. If map reading really isn’t your strong point, a quick check on google earth of the race area will at least give you some idea of what to expect.

Failing that, chatting with friends/acquaintances who have done the race before can give you some idea of what to expect (although remember one person’s ‘easy’ can be another person’s ‘difficult’).

The length of the course.

There are two things to consider with mountain racing: the actual length of the course in kilometres or miles; the time you think it could take you to complete it. Both these things will help you decide how hard you want to work.

For example, if you think the race is going to take you an hour, then you would run/walk at an effort you know you can sustain for one hour. There is no point setting off on your first mountain marathon at a pace you would use to complete a short lung busting two mile race.

A good way of deciding how long a course is going to take you is to look at previous years’ results. Consider whereabouts in the field you currently seem to be in similar races and look at the times for that point in the field on previous years’s results.

Set off at a pace that means you can complete the whole course.

Run according to effort rather than pace.

Given mountain racing does not allow you to run at a consistent pace, it is far easier to run at a particular effort that automatically adapts the pace according to the terrain. There are three main ways you can do this:

  • Perceived Effort – this is a graded effort on a scale (normally 1 to 10) which allows you to adapt your pace according to the amount of work you feel you are doing. Using the 1 to 10 scale 1 would be doing nothing; 3 to 4 would be light training; 5 to 6 would be endurance training; 7 to 8 would be tempo training and 9 to 10 would be all out efforts. So from this you could decide that you wanted to be at a perceived effort 5 or 6 for a 3+ hour race or at a perceived effort of 8 for a 90 minute race.

  • Heartrate – if you use a heartrate monitor when training and racing this can help you decide what effort you want to race at and give you active feedback on the effort you are doing. There are many ways to work out what your individual heartrate training zones are but a simple guide is to consider 5 zones each as a percentage of your maximum heartrate. For further information on training to heartrate why not check out John’s blog on heartrate monitors?

  • Power – power has for a long time been the favoured metric of cyclists as it measures work output (as opposed to heartrate which measures work input). In recent years there have been some power meters developed for runners (e.g. Stryd). These can help you maintain a level of work over a course distance whilst the meter will take into account things like the gradient.
  • Whatever way you choose to monitor your effort, my first point still stands: you need to adapt your pace (and therefore your effort) to the terrain. Regardless of how fit you are, there will be times during a technical race where you may be working at quite a low effort because the course is too difficult to run quickly.

Be adaptable.

However well you might have planned a race it pays to be adaptable. This is particularly true in races where many things can change your ability to cover the ground and the nature of the terrain.

Heat – in very hot weather, it’s always adviseable to slow your pace a little, take on extra fluid to ensure you stay hydrated. Whilst you may be able to predict your race is going to be hot and do some heat training, sometimes the weather is not what you expect.

Adverse weather – extreme weather on the day or in the days preceding your event such as heavy rain, snow etc can (if it doesn’t cause the race to be cancelled) change the terrain drastically. The course may be more slippery, you may need to wear more clothes (and carry more spare kit) and let’s face it no one can run completely unaffected into 40mph winds.

Your own fitness level on the day – training often does not go according to plan and at times you can find yourself on the start line of a race feeling less prepared than you would like. Adapting your pace to how you feel on the day can be really important. In completing the Championnat du Canigou this year, I realised half way up the climb that I was far less fit than I had planned and that I would have to walk more of the climb than I expected. Doing this enabled me to enjoy the race and complete it, albeit in a slower time than I originally planned.

Race to your strengths.

There are so many different aspects to mountain running that there are bound to be some things that you excel at more than others. For example, my main strength is climbing; I seem able to run up even relatively steep climbs at a reasonable pace and gain on the field. Unfortunately for me, my main weakness is descending so I often find myself being overtaken on the descent after working hard to get up the field on the climb.

So think about your own strengths and weaknesses and if you like racing to win then choose a race that plays to your strengths.

Are you someone who can hold good speed on the flat or on rolling terrain? choose a race with less climb over the distance and flatter sections where you can use your speed to gain places.

Are you a good descender on even the most difficult of terrains? Pick a race with a good technical descent.

If, like me, your strength is climbing why not try some up hill only races or a kilometre vertical race?

Train your weak areas.

If you just want to be able to enjoy a variety of races and to generally improve, training your weaker areas will significantly increase your chances of enjoying a variety of mountain races. The internet is awash with training tips and advice for speed training, hill training and even descending skills.

You could choose to go to an event where you get out and train with others and get the benefit of expert advice from other runners and coaches.

Or if you want to take your running to the next level you could choose to invest money in a coach to give you a specific training plan to meet your goals.

Plan your race.

Once you’ve had a good look at the route, either in reality or on a map, you can start to think about how you are going to accomplish your best race given your own strengths and weaknesses. Going through each section of the race and thinking about which bits you plan to walk, which bits you plan to run and which bits you plan to slow up on can save a lot of stress on race day. It can also prevent you form getting caught in someone else’s race (no point setting off at 6 min/mile pace on the flat start if this is faster than the pace you would do you 1km efforts on a Tuesday training night!).

If you train to heartrate or use a power meter you can decide how high you want your power/heartrate to be and at what point you decide to go for it to the finish. You will have taken a careful look at the run into the finish so you know exactly where the finish is and at what point to start your final kick.

Additional Questions

Will speed training help for mountain running?

Speed training will help with your overall fitness and some flat fast running will help you have that final kick on a run to the finish (if indeed the finish is flat). Doing some speed work on the terrain or similar terrain will also help with running technique. That said if you are exclusively training for a mountain run you are unlikely to run your best 5km track race.

When should I run and when should I walk?

This is all in the planning, walking can be more efficient and as fast or faster than running at some points in mountain running; even top mountain runners will choose to walk certain sections. Get a feel for you own abilities and trust your own skills, you may walk the majority of a difficult climb and find yourself over-taking runners on the descent who have mispaced their race.

Clare Pearson
Post by Clare Pearson
December 12, 2018
A professional endurance coach since 2018, Clare Pearson has worked with runners to help them achieve their goals. Clare specialises in trail/mountain/fell running. Clare loves to work with people to help them succeed at their own goals; whether that's a personal best, a completion, a podium or better emotional health. Clare will work with you to design a plan that fits in with your day to day life and helps you get the most out of each session.