8 Tips for Running Your First Alpine Race

Juriah Mosin / Shutterstock.com
Juriah Mosin / Shutterstock.com

Those who enjoy the challenge of a race are always looking for something new. Sure, beating your 10k road race time over and over again is great, but why not try something different?

If you’re looking to elevate your running to another level, consider signing up for an alpine trail race. These races vary in distance, terrain and elevation gain, but typically take place up a mountain of sorts, giving your legs (and your lungs) a whole new set of challenges.

Start Modestly
There are some pretty gnarly alpine races out there, but remember: Your first time, you want to challenge yourself, not kill yourself. Take an honest assessment of your current physical condition and the amount of time you’ll have to train, and find a suitable first race that you think you’ll be able to finish. As your training progresses, you can refine a specific goal time.

If you don’t live near the mountains, you may need to expand your geographical search for races.

Hit the Trails
One thing is for sure: if you’re running atop a mountain, you won’t be hitting the pavement. Terrain can include dirt, rocks, gravel, grass and even snow. This kind of running can be pretty technical so if you’re not already a proficient trail runner, you’ll want to get started.

If you’re new to trail running, be prepared to fall in love! Trail running is easier on the joints and is mentally stimulating, requiring you to be  attentive at all times or risk tripping on a protruding root!

Hit the Trails

Altitude Train, if You Can
You can train your legs to adapt to uneven surfaces, but the only way to prepare your lungs for the altitude is to ascend a mountain. If you’re into sidecountry or backcountry skiing, your lungs might already be acclimatized to dealing with the altitude. Otherwise, be prepared for a burning sensation as you tackle your first hill.

Another good way to prepare for an alpine trail race is to take a few hikes. Those that involve a mountain climb are ideal. Hikes are a fun training option because you can involve other people who aren’t necessarily keen on going “all the way” with alpine racing. It keeps your training social.

Dress for Anything
As implied by the name, alpine racing takes place in an alpine environment. Conditions can be unpredictable, and the weather down below isn’t necessarily going to be indicative of the weather up top. Check out all the weather indicators that are available to you, and be prepared. Dress in layers, use efficient fabrics and bring a warm, dry change of clothes to change into after your run.

Know When to Conserve and When to Give ‘Er
Most alpine trail races involve some sort of elevation change, so be prepared to face a few hills on the course. Hills can range from short ascents to steep switchbacks that seem to go on for ages.

Knowing how to spend your energy is essential to pacing yourself for the entire race. There’s no point sprinting up the first quarter of a steep segment, only to be left crawling up the remaining three quarters. Sometimes, it’s actually faster to slow down and to hike at a solid pace instead of attempting to run and wearing yourself out, especially when you’re first starting out.

Brush Up on Your Skipping Skills
Running downhill requires its own set of techniques, particularly when your downhill consists of slippery gravel. On the one hand, downhills are a great opportunity to catch up on time lost trudging up a steep hill; on the other hand, the thought of face-planting onto thousands of tiny rocks is somewhat unappealing.

Skipping is one way to tackle those downhills while still maintaining control. Channel your inner child and give it a try.

Know Your Etiquette
There’s a big difference between training for an alpine trail race and actually running one. In the former, you likely have the place to yourself. Sure, you may encounter a few hikers, but they will probably pop out of the way when they see you darting by.

In a race, you’re probably going to be sharing some very narrow paths with many other people. Proper seeding is crucial, and if you do need to pass someone, communicate it by announcing “on your left” (on that note—leave headphones at home). You might encounter bottlenecks, particularly on hills, where a whole train of racers are forced to slow down. Exercise patience and wait for the runners to spread out a little before attempting to pass.