The long road ahead: Why a long slow climb can make you a stronger, more efficient runner and the best long roads to train on in Colorado

In exactly 5 days I will be running the Leadville trail marathon.  I am not going to lie, I am terrified.  I ran the event back in 2010 and loved every moment of it but due to some health setbacks I wasn’t able to train for the event as I had hoped this time around.

However, there is one silver lining:  I know the course.  Not only by memory but I took the time to really do my research this year.  I calculated the average grade for all 3 long climbs.  I looked at the finishing times for women the previous years and figured out what pace they were able to manage during certain sections of the course so I know what I am up against.  And I have been training based off of this data.

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After finishing Leadville back in 2010

Back in 2010 I distinctly remember my greatest weakness on the course:  my power hiking skills.  I had done a ton of trail running to train but very little power hiking.  “Why hike when I could run?”,  I wrongly assessed.

On the course I was passed time and again by people hiking it up the mountain while I was running at a snails pace and when I finally gave in and decided to join the masses I found myself instantly out of breath and experiencing muscle fatigue in new places, back to running!

So this year, despite not getting in all the mileage I had hoped for, I did do one thing:  I trained on a lot of long steep roads to mimic the course as much as possible.
Sure, running (or power hiking) on a road uphill for an hour or more at a time may not sound like your idea of a good time but it does present a plethora of additional benefits that will transcend beyond your ability to conquer steep grades.

First, let me share just a few of these benefits and then recommend some great places to try these workouts out on your own in the front range!

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#1:   Improve your running form:
Running uphill helps to correct a myriad of biomechanical issues.  For example, it is almost impossible to heal strike, the slope forces you to land closer to midfoot.  It is also very difficult to over-stride; when running up steep hills you are forced to take short, quick steps and keep your feet underneath your body.  All of these things translates to more efficient running.

#2  Get stronger:  
When running up steep inclines, your body naturally must accommodate to the angle of the slope.  This means you must pick up your knees and feet a little bit higher.   Training on hills helps to strengthen your hip flexors, the muscles responsible for “picking up your feet” when running.   This is crucial for trail runners as the most common catalyst for injury is tripping on a rock or root.

#3:   Improve your running economy:
When you first start running uphill your body is wondering what kind of cruel torture you are putting it through.  Your legs are burning, your lungs are burning and you are not yet 10 minutes in.  However, give it some time and allow your body to adapt to the new workload.  Sure, you may have to settle for a slower pace but your physiology will soon catch up which will give you more power off and on the hills.

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Hiking or power hiking is a great way to train for a mountain trail race!

#4:  Work on your power hiking fitness:
As I mentioned above, this was something that was not on my radar when I first started competing in mountain trail races.  I think for many novices, there is something about reverting to walking during a race that is akin to failure and at the very least a serious ego hit.  However, a recent study from the University of Colorado in Boulder has demonstrated quite the opposite and confirms what serious mountain and ultra runners have known for years: power hiking is a necessary part of both training and competition.
The study had seasoned mountain runners run and walk on a variety of different inclines ranging from 9-39 degrees.  They found that it requires the same amount of energy to climb a slope, whether running or walking.  So the next time you face a steep hill, you have an excuse to walk.  Not only will you probably be faster and more efficient but power hiking uses different muscle groups which gives your body a break from the repetitive pounding of running and allows the running muscles some recovery time.

#5:  What goes up must come down!  
Whether on a technical trail or not, most people tend to sit back and put on the brakes on the downhills, thus overusing the quadricep muscles instead of using the downhill for the recovery it should be.   Running down steep, non-technical terrain forces your legs to turnover more quickly which leads to greater neuromuscular adaptations translating to a quicker cadence on and off the trails.   Successful downhill running is a mixture of skill, cadence and confidence, the later being the major issue for most people.  Practice makes perfect!

So now onto my favorite places to practice my long hill work in front range Colorado.   And just a preface: I am not talking short hill repeats, those have their time and place.  I am talking LONG hills, 1/2 mile in length or longer.  Hills with a minimum average incline of 8% that can be made into repeats if desired.

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1.  Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park:
This road is a beautiful dirt road winding through the heart of this breathtaking national park.  The 11-mile-long road leads travelers from Horseshoe Park (a short distance west of the Fall River Entrance) through the park’s wilderness to Fall River Pass, 11,796 feet above sea level.  If you are training for an ultra marathon, complete the full distance, otherwise you can park at the bottom or somewhere along the way for a shorter out and back.

2.  Manor house road in Ken Caryl (private unless you know a resident)
1 Manor House Road, Littleton CO
My parents live back in the Ken Caryl Valley so I am fortunate to use this area for my training frequently.  If you are able to get back there, park at the Manor House and take the road winding up into the foothills.  You will gain over 1500 feet in less than 2 miles, before an event like the Leadville marathon or the Imogene Pass run I will typically do 2-3 repeats up and down the road in a single workout.

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Me running up Manor House road back in February

3.  William Frederick Hayden Park, Green mountain fire road:
1000 S. Rooney Rd.
Lakewood, CO 80228
Park at the main lot off C-47o and Alameda to Rooney rd.  Go on the bridge (over the highway) and then left onto the Green Mountain Trail.  Follow the trail along the base of the mountain until it meets a gravel road and take a right up the road all the way to the top.  You will gain about 1200 feet in a little over 2 miles.  Head back down for another round or take one of the many beautiful single track trails down for a longer loop.

4.  North Table Mountain, Golden, CO:
4758 Hwy. 93, Golden  (map link)

North Table mountain boasts 2 tough climbs on either side of the mountain.  I recommend taking the North Table Loop single track trail for a warm-up and then heading up the Mesa Top trail (dirt road) to the top.  You will gain about 500 feet in the 3/4 mile climb.   This is a great place to do multiple laps and work on speed and turnover on the up and downhill.

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The looooong road up North Table Mountain

5.  Mount Evans Road
State 103, Idaho Springs CO
So this isn’t a trail but another great long road that will give you some high altitude training as well!  The road is closed to motor vehicles between Labor Day and Memorial Day which makes the off season the perfect time to run up there surrounded only by the sounds of nature and epic scenery.   Park at the rangers station (the gates will be closed but you can go through them on foot) and head on up!   If you are training for an ultra marathon or just feeling super ambitious, the road to the top is over 14 miles with a whopping 4000 foot elevation gain.   I was able to get up to the road one time in mid May for a training run:  5 miles up and back down the road, which was enough for me!

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Pics from my adventure running up Mount Evans road. I felt on top of the world!

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6.  Red Rocks Park 
18300 W Alameda Pkwy, Morrison, CO 80465
So this isn’t a trail either however you can get some serious vert running the roads here.  We typically park somewhere in the town of Morrison and then run up the road into the park and all the way to the top of the amphitheatre and back down again to the main road (about 2 miles).  There are a variety of roads leading to the top so multiple options so you don’t get bored if you are doing repeats.  Sometimes when I reach the base of the amphitheatre I will take the stairs to the top instead of the road, a small shortcut but just as challenging if not more so!

** This post and the trail recommendations can be applied to any trail race.  I also completed the the famed Imogene Pass Run back in 2011 which entails a 7 mile climb up and over a 13,000 foot pass and then 10 miles back down into the town of Telluride, CO.   The downhill section was much more demanding than the up and I was sure glad I did many long downhill repeat training sessions!

What is next?   

If you are training for a trail race or just want to become a more efficient climber and more confident on the steep, technical descents check out my Women’s intermediate trail running course starting soon!
The course includes 5 sessions at different trails across the front range including a night run, high altitude run, professional guest speakers and work on skills and fitness to conquer any trail!

Lauren Jones, B.S., ACSM

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