Running used to be something people did to lose pounds, compete at the annual Turkey Trot, or if one were really motivated, train for a marathon so you had something to talk about at social gatherings. And for the masses, it probably still is. It wasn’t necessarily something people did for “fun.” But then as the road runner’s incentives diminished or goals were met, those once cherished road running shoes were put to use mowing the lawn.
Times have changed. Trail running, being more about the overall experience than the “running,” is for most people, a far richer experience, something to look forward to and plan travel around. Once hooked, objectives become beautiful mountain ranges laced with trails instead of cities for another road marathon. And then there are the Alps, the dream destination for most every trail runner. How to trail run in the Alps is, however, a big question many ask.
The common concern goes like this, “We want to run in the Alps but we’re intimidated by the amount of vertical and aren’t sure we can run that much. How can we do the runs on ALPSinsight?”
Part how to trail run guide / part running philosophy, here’s our description of what to expect, and how to prepare for, trail running in the Alps.
Being a Trail Runner
The Alps are steep. They’re also massive. Approaching that combination as a “trail runner” means you come into the game with a little more of an athlete’s mentality, you commit to light gear, and you run when you can. When you think of yourself as a hiker, you’re more likely to trade a 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 move through it at a faster rhythm.
Deciding to be a trail runner might simply mean switching into that way of thinking; carry less, use the right gear, incorporate 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 faster and hopefully more efficiently.
|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:
– 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 might get caught labeling anything less than VK grade as a flat run. (Vertical Kilometer requires 1000m+ in under 5km)
– You carry a sort of meal with you for almost every run.
– Hikers constantly warn you’ll roll your ankle for not wearing boots.
– Your legs are muddy, bloody, muscle-y, and tired. But ready to go again tomorrow.
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.
So, you will need to 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 actually do it 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, sure enough, the bulk of my time is spent in Zone 2 with some bigger, and harder, days strategically sprinkled in. You’ll need to learn what works for you.
If you’ve never been on a training program, or worked with a coach, consider these to be invaluable options. Even if you don’t have an all consuming objective, a coach will teach you how to be a better, smarter, less prone to injury, runner. Notice I didn’t say, “faster.” Obviously, a coach can get you faster as well. But the education you get from a coach is going to keep you running smarter and better, not just faster. Learning how to trail run smarter is the key for the long game.
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.”
Many of the climbs in the Alps require a very simple strategy; walk.
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 wanting to go 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, views, solitude, and probably bigger challenges.
Most trail runners aren’t just 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.
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 uphill, 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.”
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. When it comes time to go down, you’ll also appreciate your pack not swinging around, and 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.
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.
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.
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 lot 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.
|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! Not a lot of people whoop it up on the climbs, but once you point your toes down, then the fun begins.
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.
Trail Running Gear
In most every runner’s opinion, the single most important piece of running gear is your footwear choice.
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 when I’ve got a long downhill. 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 a variety 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, 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 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, bounce around, rub something the wrong way, or just generally be inconvenient every time you try to access something.
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 with the need to carry more. The volume range is generally 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.
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.
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 flasks should be pressed against your chest and should not bounce. The sternum straps should have a wide range of adjustment so you can ease things off for breathing hard 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 a 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!
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 skin-tight material. He might have stripes of foil-like patterns running down his back or quads to improve cooling. Or, he might be squeezed into so much compression that he resembles a sausage.
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.
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 get right.
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 that lets your sweat cool you down, but dry quickly.
Basically, you should not notice the clothing 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.
Your standard Alps summer clothing options are the following- take what’s necessary for the conditions:
- T-shirt or tank top
- Lightweight long sleeve layer (optional hood)
- Windshirt, or Ultralight shell (rain resistant), or Rain jacket
- Headband or Buff
- 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. 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.
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. When trails are buried in leaves, poles help boost confidence that you can recover from an ankle roll. For moving on snow, poles can help get through slippery sections, and make the difference between moving quickly or being out of control.
The Tor des Géants : 356kms | 27,400m +/- | 150 hour cut off
Friend of the ALPSinsight Team, 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!”
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. They are like a giant network of killer aid stations.
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? The drawback of hut snacks – high prices. As you might assume, it’s not easy to keep high mountain huts stocked, so expect to pay a premium.
But then there are days, even in the Alps, where you’ll be on your own.
My fuel selection is pretty consistent so I know that it’ll work and sit well.
For runs up to 2 hours:
- Trail Butter – because who hasn’t randomly bonked at some point, even on a “short” run?
For 2-3 hour runs:
For runs longer than 3 hours:
- Trail Butter
- Tailwind Nutrition Endurance Fuel and/or a caffeinated Endurance Fuel (Check out the Matcha flavor)
- Possibly some random bar
- Salty roasted almonds
- Dried figs and dates
- Bigger food options:
- A big ‘ol Vegemite sandwich with cheese, smoked tofu and pickles
- A burrito (it’s possible, even in the Alps)
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, I need to keep the tank full. I also like to switch to saltier choices after 2-3 hours when sweet things start to not sound good.
During the making of our Sierra Trail Runs : A Guide to the Eastside project, we were often above 3000 meters for over 6 hours. I noticed I was really slowing down and even getting grumpy(er) during the longer days. I decided to do an experiment and for a huge day carried a donut, PB&J’s, a full size burrito, and a couple of caffeinated Tailwind Endurance Fuels to wash it all down. I felt fucking fantastic!
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. If you’re 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.
Strength Training for Trail Runners
During the winter of 2022/2023, we began working with our longtime partner, and your should be partner, Uphill Athlete. Kim and I had a mountain running project, Trail Running Nepal’s 3 Passes, that would truly test our endurance crossing three 5000-meter passes. While we weren’t worried about the 60km distance or the 3400 meters vert, we were very worried about accumulated fatigue from elevation.
As we started working with our coach, Alyssa Clark, she quickly identified both our weaknesses; overall strength. Kim had some niggles that regularly popped up on longer runs, and my old hips didn’t do transitions the way they used to. We immediately had a series of strength days mixed in with our increasingly bigger running weeks. Alyssa had us start the Uphill Athlete Chamonix Fit Program which included a whole lot of balance work, core, and hip strengthening. The focus, Alyssa explained, would be on the “little muscles,” the muscles that keep you going when the main engine is getting worn down.
After some initial crippling soreness, we settled in and actually grew to enjoy the structured program, a workout that can be done anywhere with little more than body weight. The end result? Undeniably better form, fitness, zero back pain, and especially smooth hips and groins.
I can’t emphasize enough how important general strength training is for mountain running, especially if you are getting serious (or older), going longer or higher, or just want to be in it for the long haul.
Trail Running Odds & Ends
Water Filter: Two clear leaders rule for water filters.
- The Katadyn BeFree filter is a must have for many runs. It screws on to most Hydrapak soft flasks and lets you drink right through the mouthpiece in the filter. A key item.
- If you need to filter water for several people, or into a hydration bag, or even right into your mouth, consider the MSR TrailShot.
Money: It’s Switzerland, carry cash in significant quantities and be warned, most huts do not take credit cards.
Phone/Apps: In the Swiss Alps, there is service just about everywhere. The following Apps are key:
- SBB – The train and bus app to see timetables, stations and for buying tickets
- MeteoSwiss or Windy because weather can change very quickly in the Alps
- FATMAP – Our mapping app of choice for mid run navigation, studying the landscape, but especially for familiarizing ourselves with the terrain so we can understand what we’ll encounter and plan accordingly (see Mountain Running Tips) PRO TIP: Have the area where you’ll be running downloaded to your phone and ready for offline use.
|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