Trail Running for Mountaineering

May 24th 2021

Trail Running for Mountaineering

Trail running is nothing new, people have been doing it for many years, but until recently it has been considered a fringe sport. In the past few years trail running has become much more mainstream as has mountaineering.

With flocks of people rushing to the mountains to admire the overpowering mountain peaks and dream of one day standing atop them all, the question often arises; how do I become a mountaineer.

As with any sport, to become one of the experts you see in magazines and movies takes many years of hard work, dedication, and risk. You probably don’t realize that the best way to start your journey to becoming a mountaineer might be right in your own backyard, or, at least, a short drive to the edge of town.

I’m talking about trail running. The other day standing at the trailhead of a local in-town trail getting ready for my run I counted 3 runners pass the trailhead and continue down the sidewalk not even glancing at the trail and it occurred to me how many athletes out there go running every day and never even consider the possibilities, or benefits thereof, to going off-road.

As it relates to mountaineering, endurance is key. You’ll be battling the elements at high elevation over long distances and durations so running is naturally an effective way to train for such an activity. But take the running to an unpaved trail and you increase your training tenfold. Running off road doesn’t just boost your endurance; it increases your agility, awareness, footing, and balance. Trail running also opens possibilities for much more challenging terrain. Where there are limits to how steep a road can be there are no limits for trails.

As a mountaineer you’ll encounter a wide range of terrain obstacles to overcome from steep switchbacks and boulder fields to knife-edged ridges with steep drop offs and straight up cliffs. Trail running prepares you for all of this. Running over uneven terrain you’re moving quick so you must increase your awareness. Everything around you; the rocks on the ground, the potholes, the puddles, the exposed tree roots, the changing pitch of the ground, tree branches, bugs, everything. It all becomes ever so clear when you’re running, perhaps not right away, but with practice you’ll learn to be more aware and this will help you safely navigate those tricky sections of the mountain and spot routs where you didn’t think there was one.

Mountaineering also requires a great deal of agility and balance. Trail running will develop these skills for you. When you’re trail running your foot isn’t striking a perfectly flat and even surface as it would on the road. It’s striking rocks, potholes, mud, sudden changes in pitch, tree roots, ruts, and its figuring it all out at high speed. Once you develop these skills in trail running they become so second nature that when you’re on a narrow rocky ridge, your foothold gives way, and your toe catches a random slab it will automatically know what to do and you’ll keep going.

Lastly, there is no road, that I’m aware of, that can match the pitches you’ll find on a mountain. You can run all you want on a road and still not develop the necessary endurance to ascend a steep snow field or couloir. As you advance in trail running you eventually move on to steeper, more technical terrain where you can train to run up the same pitches you’ll be climbing on the mountain.

There are many mountains that require absolutely no technical climbing experience to summit. They simply have a trail to the top. That’s right; an experienced trail runner can become a mountaineer by simply running to the top and bagging their first peak. Of course trail running alone won’t get you ready for Everest but if you start with trail running the rest of the skills will jut fall into place with time and practice.