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How to Trail Run in the Alps

This photo answers the question, “Why trail run?”, especially in the Alps, now let’s discuss, “How to Trail Run in the Alps”.

This summer, it’s becoming more normal to see runners slaloming the hikers on the trails of the Alps. Trail running is continuing to explode. But while COVID’s impact on the racing calendar has left countless trail runners high and dry for the events they crave, runners are getting more creative with their fitness and discovering the joy of running in the mountains outside of competition.

Our Elevation : The Alps Trail & Peak Running Resource traffic has skyrocketed and Swiss visitors are the bulk of who’s searching for trail running routes. Meanwhile, on social media, the #runthealpsswitzerland hashtag is filling up with runners on beautiful singletrack beneath alpine peaks, runner selfies, and one annoying dude who keeps taking photos of his motorbike.

Among all this new site traffic are a lot of new runners, and from them come direct messages inquiring about all sort of running topics. Each summer there seems to be a common theme in the inquiries we receive, and this year it’s something along the lines of, “We want to do your runs, but we’re intimidated by them and aren’t sure we can run that much. What can we do?”

Part guide / part Alps running philosophy, here’s our description of what’s involved and a little glimpse into what to expect on these types of runs.

Trail running: part running/part hiking/part dancing

Being a Trail Runner

The Alps are steep. They’re also massive. Approaching that combination as a “trail runner” means you use light gear and run when you can. When you think of yourself as a hiker, you’re more likely to trade performance oriented mentality for a more relaxed style. It’s really just personal preference. Some folks hike, some run, some fly, and some climb. For athletic minded people, the process of going to the mountains includes more than just experiencing a place, but also enjoying how it feels to flow through it at a faster rhythm.

Deciding to be a trail runner might really mean simply switching into that way of thinking; carrying less, using the right gear, incorporating faster movement when you can, and just kind of looking the part. At some point, after you’ve spent a lot of days out, it’ll all just fall into place. You’ll realize that your body is moving at a faster pace.

Kim’s Call Out Box: Now, Anyone can decide to be a trail runner. But how do you know when you really are one? You might be a trail runner if:
– That guy in spandex (obviously another trail runner) gives you the nod as you pass each other on the trail.
– Your legs are muddy, bloody, muscle-y, and tired. But ready to go again tomorrow.
– You have no concept of “pace” or “splits.”
– You describe your run in vertical meters, hours out, or by summit name, more than by distance.
– You can identify the tread of various shoes on muddy trails.
– You might get caught labeling anything less than VK grade as a flat run. (Vertical Kilometer requires 1000m+ in under 5km)
– Hikers constantly warn you’ll roll your ankle for not wearing boots.
– “Going for a run,” means anything between heading out for an easy jog or having have crampons and an ice ax on your back. Either way, you’ll probably be out a while, and you also know you’ll end up walking at some point.
World Champion mountain runner Hillary Gerardi

How to Trail Run

The Running Part

Part of being a trail runner requires the ability to do some running. When I say “trail running”, it’s in the Alps sense of the term; going up, and then down, and then possibly repeating. While this style is common and what we’re more or less after when we head to the mountains, it doesn’t do wonders for one’s actual running ability. 

Instead, invest some time running flatter, or more rolling terrain, be it in the city, on local paths, or easier trails. The point is to run so the body gets trained to be able to open it up when the time comes on bigger trail runs. 

Just about every runner I know recognizes that consistency is key. When I run most every day, I feel good. When I’m inconsistent, things get wonky. My body seems to do better with a super mellow 5km rather than nothing on a rest day. I’ve found that lots of very easy days with some big days sprinkled in is the ideal for my body. You’ll need to learn what works for you. 

These running training sessions, when done mindfully and in moderation, will help prevent injuries when you do go bigger in the mountains. A very solid base of kilometers is going to be what you tap into when you move to the trails and the longer days you’ve set as objectives.

Shaving Off Hours
“Estimated times on signs are targeted to the classic hiker and climber.  It’s always a pleasure to cut those in half or shave off three quarters of the time when you’re running.  Being fit and moving fast and light allow you to go further and get to places that you just can’t if you’re moving slowly and encumbered.” 
Hillary Gerardi
Running to and running from, but when she gets there, Hillary Gerardi power hikes up the Pigne de la Lé, Switzerland.

Going Uphill

Many of the climbs in the Alps require a very simple strategy; you walk, a lot.

In the Alps, if you aren’t putting in a significant amount of vertical meters, you’re probably more of a path runner. Switzerland’s vast wanderweg (trail) system will almost certainly have you going higher and higher. That’s the point. Going higher is what allows trail runners to leave behind what they’re trying to escape; the ordinary. It’s what’s up high that we seek; passes, peaks, and solitude. 

For many runners, they aren’t only seeking fitness that allows them to go further, they’re after the conditioning that allows them to go higher. The best way to train for big vertical is to do big vertical.

Most all of the runs on our site Elevation : The Alps Trail & Peak Running Resource require at least 1000 meters of vertical while the Way Ups are going to be in the 2000 meter range. 

Mountain running guarantees some time will be spent mountain hiking.

I’ve heard many strong trail runners confess that they look forward to big climbs on long days. Why? Because it’s the time when you get to settle in for a long walk. It actually feels great to accept your fate at the bottom of a 1000+ meter climb. Running is great and all, but putting your head down, grinding out vertical meters and seeing how the landscape changes is what most of us sign up for. If you do it solo, it’s quiet time. If you’re in a group, everyone is often together and it’s an opportunity to pass the time talking (pace dependent, you may well be gasping).

Advice from UphillAthlete
“Once the trail gradient gets over 15-20% (that’s 1.5-2m of rise in 10m of trail) even elite mountain runners will shift to walking.  Hiking, especially up hill uses significantly less energy to cover the same distance than running.  Especially on long days in the mountains you should start at a pace that feels too easy so that later in the day you still have the legs.  Fast walking is an acquired skill so practice fast hiking on uphills in your training.” 

Looking for a trail running training program? The dream team at UphillAthlete offers a Big Vert training plan – perfect for the Alps. Save 20% with coupon code : elevation
Scott Johnston, Master Coach at UphillAthlete

If you’re tempted to run on less steep sections, know that the difference in your heart rate between walking and running uphill is huge, but the speed is about the same. If you’re facing an enormous climb, or several in one day, settle into a natural rhythm of power hiking.

Everything about vertical will teach you the importance of going light. No one wants to haul anything extra uphill, and when it comes time to go down, you’ll also appreciate your pack not swinging around. Your knees will be especially happy without the extra weight to impact them.

Kim’s Call Out Box: Hands on your knees or no? I like to push into my legs with my arms when trying to go hard uphill. As long as you keep your chest open, don’t close down your lungs, or hunch your shoulders, I think this is a useful technique. Poles are another option for using upper body strength to help out tired legs. Uphill is also a good time to pay attention to your breathing, and settle into a rhythm.
If only all downhilling was so sweet.

Going Downhill

After you’ve huffed and puffed your way to the top of whatever it is you’ve climbed, you get to reverse the entire process and activate an all new set of muscles. It’s time to go down.

But first, a pause. This is not a race. You’ll probably want to catch your breath, recover a bit, let your soaking wet shirt dry, and possibly eat and/or drink. I suggest enjoying yourself and taking your time, after all, where you are is probably a big reason for why you just put out a big effort.

Kim Strom in the fast lane down the Mettelhorn.

Whenever I’m forced to roll over the top of a big climb and immediately start descending, my body needs time to adjust to a new kind of beating. Until then, I always feel like a grocery cart with one of those wobbly wheels. But after a few minutes the legs understand what’s going on and start to behave accordingly.

Like so many things downhill, descending quickly on mountain trails takes some skill. And like so many things in general, the more you do it the better you get. 

Ankle rolling, shin bashing (as can been seen) downhilling. Slow down, use caution.

At this point, wouldn’t it just burst your bubble about trail running if I once again said how running downhill is often just a matter of walking? Only a bit faster? Well… sometimes it is. I’m not saying you walk downhill after you walk uphill, this would have you dangerously close to being a “hiker” wearing running kit. I’m just saying to keep an open mind…

Unless the trail is pretty clean, running downhill can be a kind of bouncing around, certainly faster than walking, but not exactly “running.” This applies as the trail gets steeper, rockier, more technical, has serious consequences if you fall, or if you are terrified of rolling an ankle.

But then there are those trails that let you open it up and experience running fast and wild. Usually smooth and not too steep, with just the right amount of rocks to keep it interesting, these are the trail runner’s powder runs.

I’ve run downhill behind Kim Strom countless times and she always does this.
Kim’s Call Out Box: I know you’re worried about those old knees & ankles (Dan), but don’t forget the most important thing about down hilling. It’s super fun! A whole lot more “whoops” get hollered out while dancing downhill than slogging up.

A few tips on downhilling: make shorter quicker steps, let your knees be springs, embrace speed, and keep smiling to convince yourself of your own confidence. When you’re flying, your feet should hardly touch the ground, and stretching your arms like wings is good for balance, steering, and fun.
Hillary Gerardi

Trail Running Gear

Shoes

In most every runner’s opinion, the single most important piece of running gear is your footwear choice for the day.

I personally own a lot of shoes. A lot. I have running shoes for dirt roads, shoes for technical trails, for going uphill, for going all day, for going shorter and faster, for when my legs are tired, for when it’s hot and I know my feet will swell, for winter, for runs with some climbing and even for standing at my desk.

Trail running shoes are going to take a beating. The Alps are no country for weak shoes. You need a tough, stable chassis to keep your foot from sliding around in the shoe or on the trail. Part of that chassis needs to include a stout toe cap that’ll prevent broken toes when you’re in a head on collision with a rock. And you will hit rocks. Soles need to be appropriate for the terrain you’re in, which may be mud, loose rock, talus, or even a bit of rock scrambling. And, they need to be able to do all of this while also being able to comfortably run with whatever amount of cushion you choose.

Skip the Gore-Tex. I don’t own a single pair of Gore-Tex shoes because in my experience all low top shoes get wet at the same rate. The typical scenario in the Alps is an early morning or post rain run through wet grass. From the knees down, you’re soaked. It moves right through your socks and into your shoes. As the day warms up and the grass dries out, your shoes and feet will dry. Gore-Tex shoes, no matter what they tell you, will keep your feet clammy and wet all day until they are off and can really air out.

And if it’s not wet out and you’re wearing Gore-Tex? You’ll be creating your own tropical microclimate inside your shoes while your non-Gore-Tex friends will be dry. Worried about cold, wet feet? Opt for merino socks and forget about Gore-Tex. Your feet, and bank account, will be glad you did.

For those big ups, it’s nice to have light shoes on your feet, but of course what goes up must come down, and big downs can beat the feet up without some extra cushion and even a rock plate built into the sole. It’s all about personal preference for footwear. 

I like a shoe designed for all around use, with some extra cushion for days that’ll have me do big drops. I also like to have one pair of shoes that is even a half size bigger than I normally wear for hot summer days with massive descents. Your feet are going to swell and all ten of your little piggies will appreciate some extra wiggle room when you face a 2000 meter descent.

Shoes need to fit well and you need to nail the right size. You’ll probably discover the brands that fit you best and then work with what they offer. If you are just starting out, find yourself a shop that offers a lot of trail running models so you can try all types of styles. 

I’ll leave it up to the shop to explain the techy stuff like drop and whether or not you pronate or supinate.

The Strava feature of being able to record your shoe mileage is something I use. It’s fairly consistent to see shoes start to perform differently around 400-500km, and it’s always interesting to see how we get used to a shoe’s feel, then change to a new pair and can’t believe how good they feel. If they haven’t already fallen apart, I typically get rid of shoes at around 800km.

Trail running above Kandersteg, Switzerland after a summer snow storm at higher elevations.

Trail Running Packs

Your pack choice is not as critical to get right as shoes, but a poor fitting pack is going to annoy you and probably make your neck hurt, back hurt, or rub something the wrong way.

Like shoes, there are a lot of models to choose from and you’d be best off looking at and really considering a lot of different options. And again, like shoes, you’ll probably own more than one pack. 

There are vests for short runs, mid-size for longer runs with some temperature changes, and big packs for going higher and/or longer and carrying more gear. The volume range is between 3 and 15 liters.

Modern trail running packs are designed so you can do most everything with the pack on. In front is what I call the cockpit, where numerous pockets hold your soft flask water bottles, your phone, some food, headband and gloves, and maybe even a super light wind shirt. Reach around to the side and have access to a compression pocket where you’ll find a light jacket.

Eating on the fly – all your familiar calories and hydration should be in your front pockets, within easy reach and never bouncing.

A poorly designed pack, (in the smaller sizes – less than 5 liters), will force you to remove it to access what you are after. 

A well designed pack will have it all within reach. You might even be able to put your rain jacket on over the pack.  

Packs stay on but clothing and food easily come out.

Be sure the pack fits very tight against your body with the clothes on that you’ll wear and with the weight you will carry. In front, your full soft flask bottles should not bounce at all. They should be pressed against your chest. The sternum straps should have a wide range of adjustment so you can ease things off for breathing uphill, or pull tight to prevent bouncing on the down.

Finally, thanks to a general abundance of water sources in the Alps, there isn’t much need for a water bladder. I only use soft flasks (one or two 500ml) and rarely carry any more than 1 liter at any given time. Having a full bladder in your pack is going to bounce and is generally overkill. There are some runs, like the Hardergrat, where more water is necessary. For these, bladders might be best. Part of learning is understanding when you may need more water for any given run. Study maps!

Our packs of choice are the Black Diamond Distance series and the Patagonia Slope Runners.

Trail Running Clothing

Part function, part fashion – this one is up to you, but I’ll add some of my thoughts after spending a lot of time trying different systems.

In the Alps, there are two styles (and I’m using the masculine here, bear with me); Euro Dude and Normal Guy. Which camp you belong to is going to be influenced by many things; How much you believe in “technical” clothing, function, and what gets laughed at where you come from.

Euro Dude is the one wearing really tight things, often with a lot to read printed on the material. He might have stripes of foil-like material running down his back or quads to improve cooling. Or, he might be squeezed into so much compression that he resembles a sausage. 

Euro Dude. It’s not for everyone, but tight kit is comfy kit and it may offer some performance advantages.

Normal Guy on the other hand might barely pass as a runner at all. He’s wearing classic running shorts, a loose-ish fitting shirt, a truckers hat and socks that make his ankles look like beer cans.

Both styles have their place and when done right probably overlap in what features they offer.

Again, it’s part fashion. I come from California and know what gets laughed at there. 

Call me Normal Guy.

Normal Guy.

That tight fitting clothing certainly has advantages. Like your well fitted pack, things should be kept from bouncing, swinging, and chafing. Tight material tends to help with this. Things that could pitch and yaw are kept in check. The right shorts are the critical piece to find.

On top, that loose fitting shirt might not be so appreciated as it sandpapers your nipples or hangs like a wet towel on your torso. Your shirt should be tight-ish and made from a material you’re happy with in how it holds, and then sheds, sweat. 

Basically, your clothing should not even be noticed on your body. 

I like sleeveless shirts to let things air out and to not feel anything pulling on my shoulders.

In cooler weather, I often carry a second shirt, usually thin merino, to put on after big sweaty climbs.

On top of your short sleeved shirt, if it is really warm, I’ll only take a wind shirt- usually an ultralight pullover to keep the bite off. But if it’s potentially much cooler, I go with a light, long sleeve, synthetic shirt – and I love, LOVE, hoods. Hoods keep the warmth in when it’s cold and the sun off when it’s roasting your neck.

Patagonia’s High Endurance Kit is a trail running system designed for a huge range of weather conditions at the lightest possible weight.

Your standard Alps summer clothing options are the following- take what’s necessary for the conditions:

  • Shorts
  • T-shirt or tank top
  • Lightweight long sleeve layer (optional hood)
  • Windshirt, or…
  • Ultralight shell (rain resistant), or…
  • Rain jacket
  • Headband or Buff
  • Gloves
  • Socks
  • Ultralight rain pants (Completely optional. Luke Nelson once referred to superlight over pants as “Oh Fuck” pants. This is perfect because that’s what you’ll be muttering when you really need them, and at the same time are thrilled you brought them along.)

When you start getting into the higher mountains or colder months, tights, a puffy vest or puffy jacket become part of the system.

Kim’s Call Out Box: Seriously, Mr. Euro Dan! You subconsciously match your socks to your hat on every run. Ok, I’ll give you somewhere in between the two. Like those Patagonia shorts, tight in the back, but more covered in the front. And that’s a good approach, choose what works for you, have the best of both. Trucker hat and man-pris, as long as it’s comfortable.
The Black Diamond Distance Carbon poles set the standard for trail running poles.

Poles

Many people prefer to use poles for the ups. Poles allow you to use your arms to help with each step, especially when you have to high-step. Your quads get a tiny break each time you push up, which over the course of 1000 meters adds up to a lot less effort. If you choose to use poles, they have additional advantages. For steep descents, poles let you stabilize yourself and absorb some of the impact that would otherwise shock load your knees. For crossing or descending snow, poles can make the difference between moving quickly or being out of control.

Extreme Distances

The Tor des Géants : 356kms | 27,400m +/- | 150 hour cut off
Friend of the ALPSinsight Team and Elevation homepage star, Alister Bignell, finished the 2019 race in 94 hours, placing 17th place.

We asked Alister to discuss what it took and what his strategy was:

“Due to their length, time limit and mountainous nature, events like the Tor need planning. Your pace, sleep, kit and fuel are all fundamental choices based on your experience and research, that also require adapting as your own experience unfolds. After all, it’s a fine line we tread between fatigue and delirium.

My only goals were to finish, keep eating and stay positive. I planned to hike the uphills, and keep running the downhills and flats as long as my body could cope. I preferred to rely on feel rather than numeric pacing, so I opted for consistency and moving strongly, always backing off if it started feeling hard. In letting go of any time or competitive pressures, I seemed to enter a state of relaxed focus and grace that only deepened as the Tor continued. As a result, I could actually enjoy the abundant range of food on offer, which in turn prevented any noticeable energy dips or stomach issues (previously an issue for me). The copious cups of Yorkshire tea might have also played a part here.

In total, I spent 8 hours in aid stations, sleeping for 5 (including x2 90 minute blocks), making me feel as strong on the final section from Ollomont to Courmayeur as I had felt in the early stages. It also meant I was able to keep running those downhills and (most!) flats right until the end as my quads held out. The Tor is mostly hiking, but if your legs can cope there is a surprising amount of running to be had.

My advice for first-timers: adapt your body to the mountains over time and know your ability, immerse yourself in the experience and keep eating!”
Alister Bignell
Snack time on the Wildi Frau summit

Trail Running Nutrition

There is one key element unique to the Alps – readily available food, water and booze thanks to the wonders of the hut system.

While huts should not be fully relied upon, a well situated hut is very much appreciated. If you know where they are and what to expect, you can use them as part of your fueling and nutrition strategy.

Huts offer all sorts of beverages, from mineral water to sodas to beer and coffee. You can almost always take water at a hut as well but they may remind you it’s not technically drinking water. It’s up to you whether or not to drink it without filtering. If it’s an alpine hut, well above any cows, I drink it. 

For food, you can order a full meal of pasta, rösti, meat & cheese platters, all sorts of baked things, or just a candy bar.

If you know you’ll pass a hut on a big day, why not carry less and take advantage of what you can get? 

But then there are days, even in the Alps, where you’ll be on your own. 

Getting high requires eating a lot.

My fuel selection is pretty consistent so I know that it’ll work and sit well:

The main thing that works for me is to eat often and a lot for big days. I’m fine with nothing for up to 2 hours, but beyond that, for me, I need to keep the tank full. 

Why wouldn’t you stop for fresh baked torts?

The point is, find what works for you and stick to it. Fuel makes a huge difference in how you feel, your performance, and your recovery.

Kim’s Call Out Box: I’ll second the vote for a giant sandwich. You might start with a bulky pack, but halfway up your second climb, that’s going to be the best sandwich ever.

The huts are fantastic as long as you can eat what they’re serving and can spring six bucks for a cola. Vegan or poor and out on a trail run? It’s best to carry more than you think you’ll need and don’t rely on outside aid. If you have special dietary needs, you might want to carry extra for when your friends will want a bite of your carefully rationed goods.

Trail Running Odds & Ends

Water Filter: The Katadyn BeFree filter is a must have for many runs. It screws on to most Hydrapak soft bottles and lets you drink right through the mouthpiece in the filter. A key item.

Money: It’s Switzerland, carry cash in significant quantities. Most huts do not take credit cards.

Phone: In the Swiss Alps, there is service just about everywhere if you use Swisscom. The following Apps are key:

Training: If you’re serious about getting stronger, and better, at trail running, or just want to educate yourself to be a better athlete, we can highly recommend the team at UphillAthlete.

Kim’s Call Out Box: Play. That’s the heart of it. Be sure to appreciate the company or solitude; feel the sun, wind, rain; thank the ache in the bottoms of your feet, your wet socks, your salty eyebrows; explore; breathe and smile.

By Dan Patitucci and Kim Strom

Now, go run.

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Comments 1

  1. Thank you so much guys for this incredible guide. So informative and inspiring.
    Now may someone please come up with a Corona vaccine already?

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