Spencer is a 2021 Pikes Peak Ascent finisher (3:21:39) and writes for OutThere Colorado
Pictured at Right - Richard Denny West, 58, from Oklahoma, pushes up near the finish during the Pikes Peak Ascent on Saturday, August 21, 2021.
If you're lining up to run the Pikes Peak Ascent half marathon for the first time this year or have ran it before, but are still looking to feel more comfortable on uphill mountain trails, here are a few basic training tips to help you excel under some of the circumstances that make the Pikes Peak Ascent so unique.
1. Don't skip the hills
Finishing the Ascent means 7,800 feet of climbing up the Barr Trail to the Pikes Peak summit – 7,800 feet! Short of running similar mountain trails, it can be difficult to simulate this sort of race scenario in training.
If don't have access to mountain trails or are still working your way up to being able to tackle that type of terrain, hit whatever graded trails you can find, aiming to train for both the steeper sections of Barr Trail and a prolonged uphill grind. While trail training is probably the best way to really build up the foot and leg muscles needed to complete the route, an inclined treadmill could also be useful when trails aren't accessible – especially when training for the lengthy nature of the Ascent run.
While a vertical gain of 7,800 feet during any run is intimidating, it's even worse when that gain comes with very few significant relief points. Don't expect much of a break throughout the entire race, which makes managing speed and effort so that energy lasts a crucial skill to hone.
2. Don't skip the nutrition
A run that's as strenuous as the Ascent requires quite a bit of muscle, which will take time and patience to grow. One way of maximizing every training session is to make sure you're getting proper nutrition around that session to help expedite muscle development and recovery.
I'm no nutritionist, but I can tell you about two simple things that seem to work for me – protein and calories. If I'm looking to get faster and stronger on the trail, I'm making sure I get some sort of protein supplement after each run and that I'm also eating plenty of calories via larger meals in between training days. I prefer a plant-based protein post-run, as this seems to be easier on my stomach, but again, that's just what works for me.
If finding the best advice about nutrition as it relates to running is important to you, it's recommended that you work with a personal nutritionist who can optimize a plan that fits your specific needs.
3. Anticipate loose rocks, roots, and other hazards
Most mountain trails in Colorado mean uneven, rocky terrain and the Barr Trail is no exception. Loose rocks will be present, along with other trail hazards, making it important that you're comfortable adapting to less-than-great footing at a moment's notice.
I've found that the best way to prepare for running on loose terrain is to simply seek out trails of that nature in training – practice makes perfect, right?
Once I've found these trails, I've found that it's important to limit my speed and focus on footwork, instead. As my footwork has gotten better, my speed has naturally increased over time, but not before additional muscle had time to build in my knees and ankles, as well.
It's hard to prepare for stepping on a rock that starts rolling while mid-stride, but the more familiar you are with that feeling, the more likely it is that your reflexes will kick in to help you safely keep your balance.
4. Beware the elevation
One unique aspect of the Pikes Peak Ascent is that the air gets thinner as the race progresses. As the terrain gets steeper and as runners stack up more milage, they're also likely to find that they're lacking in oxygen, as well.
It's hard to train for the increase in elevation in a place where high elevation trails don't exist. Because of this, some out-of-state runners will opt to come to Colorado several days early to help start the acclimatization process, while locals may focus their training on higher mountain trails.
The body's reaction to elevation is another trait that tends to vary greatly by person.
The general advice for the Pikes Peak Ascent would be to make sure you know how your body reacts to such a great elevation gain prior to race day, knowing that the strenuous nature of the run could trigger or amplify negative effects. Medical staff is on-site, but altitude sickness is dangerous and it's definitely not very fun. It's on you to know your own body and its limits.
Personally, I've also found that overdoing it on caffeine coupled with not getting enough water or rest tends to be what exacerbates issues with elevation for me.
A lot of people will report that elevation gain can cause loss of thirst and appetite, despite the body still needing more sustenance. On race day, it's important to have a plan in place that will keep you fueled and hydrated and to actually stick to that plan despite the urge to push through pain and ignore water stations.
5. Work on your mental toughness
The Pikes Peak Ascent is one of the most strenuous and difficult running races in the country, if not the world. Not only does it take physical toughness to complete, but mental toughness, too.
Don't skip the cold days when it comes to training, bundle up instead. Don't skip out on the hills during a healthy run, the mountain won't be backing down on race day.
The Pikes Peak Ascent is a half marathon... up a mountain... on rugged trail... in one of the highest elevation parts of the country. It's tough and you'll need to be tough, too, if you want to cross the finish line.
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