Mountain-running secrets I discovered in the Alps

How you too can run up mountains and make yourself better at running uphill.

Never one to miss the chance to challenge myself, when I discovered there was a European Masters’ Off-Road Running Championship I found myself clicking the ‘enter now’ button. I’d be running in a mountain run. 

Granted, that was a bit keen given that I live in the Fens, where we don’t even have to negotiate mild slopes on a run, let alone run uphill on the way to a 6,500ft (1,980m) summit.  

Clearly, I’d have to improve my mountain running skills – and buy a GB vest, as this race involved representing your country of birth. Both proved to be surprisingly easy. 

Paul Larkins, right with his teammates in SwitzerlandCredit: Elaine Larkins
Steven Worsley, Ifan Lloyd and Paul Larkins celebrate a fourth place finish in the European Masters’ Off-Road Running Championship

Preparation: first, get the T-shirt

This race means representing your home country, in my case GB, and you do that by signing up for your local area’s masters association (Eastern Vets for me) and then buying yourself a GB vest.  

The surprise was that, honestly, anyone can do this. These associations run all of sorts of sporting opportunities over the year, from indoor athletics to road-running championships. They’re fun, inclusive, and very welcoming. You don’t need to be a champion or a record holder to be part of the team. You just need to be keen and fit. 

Take to your heels

To prepare for the race I did a fair bit of running – but not an enormous amount. I’m 60, after all, so anything more than 25 miles a week tends to play havoc with things like knees and calf muscles. I’d say I was fit, but not superhumanly so. And of course, given where I live, I hadn’t run a single hill workout, albeit there’s plenty you can do besides running up hills to get you ready to, well, run up hills. More on that in a moment.  

First, for a runner from the Fens, how was the race itself? 

Secrets of the off-road

Just a few months after that fateful click, I found myself in Adelboden, Switzerland, high up in the Alps and on the start line with more than 200 people, representing countries from all over Europe. 

We were lined up for a race that was 8.8km (just over five miles) but involved more than 2,000ft (609m) of ascent up Alpine paths. The finish line was literally through the clouds over our collective heads – at a chairlift station we could see far above us.  

It would be remiss of me to say this race was easy, but equally I can tell you that an off-road event in the mountains will involve a lot of walking. Which, of course, means that an event like this is very achievable for just about every runner. In fact, if you don’t use the Jeffing technique of mixing walking and running, you probably wouldn’t be able to do the race.

Within two minutes of starting, I had passed quite a few runners walking. Indeed, one of my teammates who beat me by eight places in the end – he was 10th and I placed 18th – told me he couldn’t start running until we’d covered about 2km (1.25 miles), such was the severity of that early climb.  

The field gets under way in the mountain running champsCredit: Elaine Larkins
First one to to the top wins. The field thunders up the mountain

I had run that part of the route, but by 4km (2.5 miles) my teammate had passed me and was heading into the distance. Then, at around 5km (3 miles), I had to switch to walking. My excuse is we were so high my ears popped with the change in air pressure. And at least it gave me time to admire the stunning scenery – it’s reaching those mountain views that makes this event so special.  

I mixed running and walking for the next few minutes before settling into a steady pace for most of the final 3km. By then it was too late to close on anyone as everybody appeared to find a second wind – though I did have a great final battle with a Swiss runner in the closing very steep uphill quarter of a mile.  

He beat me, but that didn’t matter. Really, this is all about taking part – and, of course, the post-race food, which is served with the mountains as a backdrop.  

The skills you’ll need

My teammates were from Sussex, Swansea, and Blackpool, and another from Lancashire, plus of course me from the Fens. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call an Alpine-based squad. Yet we beat Switzerland. How come? 

I discussed the matter with my teammates and here are our conclusions: 

  • It is handy to do some hill training, but leg strength is vital. If you can’t run any steep climbs, make sure you spend a lot of time doing strength training.  
  • A great workout to add to your week is to do ten squats after each kilometre of your run. So, a 10k run would include 100 bodyweight squats. 
  • Don’t be afraid to walk. My Welsh teammate is a sub-three-hour marathon runner in his sixties and as the result confirms, in the top ten in Europe when it comes to running up mountains. Yet he walked a lot of the race. In fact, my Garmin confirms I walked seven minutes of my 58-minute race, and I beat more than half the field. Walking works. 
  • Pace yourself. Don’t hare off: go easy, go slow. You’ll pick off competitors in the final half. My early miles were over ten minutes per mile, my closing speed nearer to seven. 
  • Cycling is superb for building hill-running strength. Try to include a one-hour ride each week in your schedule. 
  • Wear the right shoes. Hill running, especially in the mountains, is all about feeling confident that your feet will be stable when they hit the rocky ground. Good, specialist shoes will help this. 
  • For mountain running, get yourself used to the transition between walking and running by including interval training in your week, such as running hard for one minute, then walking for one minute. Repeat ten times.

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Where next?

The Alps conquered, I feel myself turning to Madeira next year. This Portuguese island will host the 2024 version of this event, but if you fancy something more testing it is also holding the World Masters Mountain Running Champs there this September. This follows the same format as the European event and features one longer race of around 30km (18 miles) and one shorter of about 8km (5 miles).   

Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Updated:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.