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.