A spike in the popularity of the Vertical Kilometer (VK) Racing is on the rise. So, what is a VK? A VK is the practice of running uphill as fast as possible. Competitors charge up steep mountains climbing 1000m over a course usually no longer than 5km.
Smaller versions of VKs are popping up everywhere calling themselves Uphill Challenges. These challenges are found mainly in the US, as we do not have the ample amount elevation in our "mountains" like our European competitors do. Even though we do not have the elevation, uphill challenges still present an enormous physical demand and quick increase in elevation or a short amount of miles.
Regardless of your race title, VK or Uphill Challenge, how do you train for such an event?
1. Find a hill and stick with it
While a big aerobic base and fast flat road running can give you the cardio output to do well in a VK race, you will need to practice your uphill running mechanics in order to adapt to running on a steep grade. However, you don’t need to move to the Alps to train. Simply choose a local hill and sprint up it. Sprints should be in duration from 8-15 seconds. At the end of each repeat, jog slowly back down before beginning the next effort.
This is a very demanding workout and aimed at increasing your climbing power and efficiency. A proper warm up is essential and it is a good idea to start your sprints at a conservative effort and build your speed as you get a few reps under you.
2. Light feet
Find a light shoe that has lugs that can "bite" into the ground. Over any distance carrying the least amount of weight will be beneficial and will add up. Shoes that provide traction will help your grip and prevent you from sliding backwards when the terrain gets steep.
3. Know the course and what it entails
In my first mountain race I made a huge error in that I did not study the course well enough. Grades on paper / pictures do not do justice to how steep and difficult a course can be! During my race I was not mentally prepared for all the climbing and I came out wishing I had done more in my preparation.
4. Mental preparation
As I mentioned above, preparing yourself for the course, and what lies ahead in your effort level and the physical exertion placed on muscles that you don't normally use in flat road running is critical. The perceived exertion in these uphill / VK races will be higher than what you will have for a road 5k or 10k race. It's very important to manage your expectations and effort level so that you can finish the race strong!
It may not seem like an important factor in timing your eating for a race so short, however, your body will be burning a lot of calories and working extremely hard. I would suggest practicing your fueling strategy and pre-race meal such that you are able to get the most of yourself on race day.
6. Take a deep breath
As you stand on the starting line, breath in deep and relax. Your training is complete and you have made it to the start. Running up a mountain is daunting but it is also fun!
7. Short quick strides
Similar to cycling or driving a car with a small engine up a hill, using a low "gear" will be an efficient way to get up the mountain. What this means in running is that you want to take short, quick strides and focus on taking one step at a time.
8. Power hike
There have been studies that have shown that on inclines steeper than 28%, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking.
Lean your torso over your hips and push hard on your leading leg. The idea is that you can push down hard on your legs with your arms and thereby transfer more power into your legs. Some races offer the use of hiking poles to aid in climbing. Since power hiking is a new movement to some, it is good to practice in order to become efficient. So get out there and practice! Your body will thank you on race day!
9. Leave it all on the course
These races finish on the summit. Once the finish line comes into view and you can feel the top, the last five minutes of racing you don't need to worry about pacing yourself. Try as best as you can to accelerate and finish will all that you have! You have made it to the top! If possible eat a snack as you steadily make your way down, and don't forget to cheer your fellow competitors as you go.