Dr David Lipman runs through his preparation and execution of the Montreux Trail Festival MXSKY race.
Set on the beautiful Lake Geneva, in a town well known for its association with Queen (and iconic Freddie Mercury statue), the Montreux trail festival could be confused for being a nice peaceful run in the hills. Let’s just say I was hoping the views, surroundings, support and vibe of the festival and town, in general, was going to be a good anaesthetic and analgesic. Otherwise, things were shaping up to feel like Freddy Krueger hacking away at my legs, rather than the dulcet tones of Freddie Mercury!
In planning any operation, a stepwise manner is suggested. I am no Sun Tzu, but here goes.
Step one: Know your enemy
Montreux Trail Festival MXSKY-34.4km, 2500m elevation gain, 3319m elevation loss. (https://montreux-trail.ch/en/races/mxsky/)
-Point to point race with 4 aid stations.
-Front-loaded with climbing and backloaded with descending.
-My second ever race in Europe and only 2nd ever sky race.
-Very likely that poles would be used for large portions considering there were many segments of 14%+ average grade (some with >20%!) and VERY little ‘flat’.
Step two: Know your constraints
-Not one hill in town to train on. NOT ONE.
-Some travel to work training around with time spent in hotels and foreign environments.
Step three: Plan your assault
-Goal time – 4.5hrs.
-Nutrition, hydration and supplements all as per usual (An article in and of itself but in short, Vfuel gel every 40 or so mins, water to thirst, some electrolytes with BCAAs and caffeine).
-Climatic conditions, in this case, very much what I was living in and used to, mid-to-high 20s with moderate humidity.
-Altitude, often a big challenge in European racing, not so in this case. The highest pass was around 2000m, and the town is located at 380m. (For the record this is a great race to consider as a European sky race for this reason. Altitude will entirely slash your tyres if you’re not ready for it).
Step four: Map your course
How are you going to prepare for your assault?
Now, this would be a pretty uninteresting, straightforward article if I were to tell you that I spent a lot of time doing long trail runs including a tonne of elevation, particularly steep stuff. You guys know all that stuff. But what if you can’t do this?
My dilemma, as I mentioned was that there were no real trails and not a hill in sight (33km run for 12m elevation gain anyone!?) To many (mostly road runners) this would be a dream, and if I used Strava, I am sure it would be a nice ego boost there too. But alas, this was not the case in either aspect.
So, I set about tweaking what is otherwise a relatively similar training template I use for my weekly schedule.
In general, I like to work up to a significant running volume (for me, which considers: injury history, training history, event and time constraints), I then deload back to a more manageable load and reload slightly more slowly from there, over a few months. Following this, I start to ‘taper’ for the event. Usually, this means my first peak in volume is 2 or more months out and then the second peak of volume is about 3-4 weeks out. Within this, I would usually have enough elevation in my training runs all the way through it (as I train primarily as a trail runner). Likewise, being the ex-meathead I am, I tend to do strength work in the gym 3 times a week, dropping back volume and eventually the frequency of these sessions 2-3 weeks out from the event. (The caveat is there because it is probably more than what most would need in terms of strength training)
My preparation was somewhat impacted by a significant amount of travel leading into the event, where I would usually be in the thick of substantial blocks of serious work. That said, the real impact here was mostly on my strength work, gyms being sporadic and variably equipped, I am creative and experienced with bodyweight, but some things just can’t be done so well for long periods of time.
Having said all that I am a firm believer that, in running, consistency is the most significant factor in success. While the interesting parts, especially for coaches, are things like different session types, periodisation models, etc. the reality is that long-term, consistent running is the most critical factor, by many magnitudes. In this regard, I succeeded, which for me is quite reasonable (it is relatively rare for me to skip sessions, I don’t remember the last time I did so – BUT I do modify things through the week to be flexible around commitments). I work on trying to keep an acute to chronic workload ratio of roughly 0.8-1.2, but the reality is I keep it much narrower than that (usually more like 0.9-1.1). I feel much better doing this during times of high loading (i.e. higher acute workloads) and find that with this sort of load I don’t feel too beaten up and don’t need to work too hard on recovery modalities.
I have a good handle on what I can sustain in the gym without significant impact on my running quality and load. Likewise, I have found a stimulus that keeps me healthy as a baseline and then can be added to for more of a performance focus.
I personally need quite a bit of calf and glute work as this is somewhat of a weak point for me and has been the genesis of a few injuries over the years.
Likewise, due to an old contact sport induced shoulder injury I need at least a maintenance load of upper body pulling to ensure my shoulder doesn’t ache incessantly.
Previously, I had found that in longer training runs, especially with a lot of elevation (particularly more hiking) and recent racing that I started to get very tight in my left groin area. I still can’t decide what muscle group, but it seems likely to be Adductor Magnus, and this was a cause for concern for me, especially with this race in mind. I decided to try a few variations in the gym to rectify this and hit a winner on day 1 (as much luck as skill methinks) with Bulgarian split squats. I’d been shying away from these due to a mixture of dislike and the reduced stability component (which I thought was a detractor for them or at least a good enough excuse to avoid an exercise I disliked :P).
My lower body work focused more heavily on vertical planes of movement than it typically would, due to a lack of elevation in my running (whereas it would usually be mixed with some more horizontal work).
Beyond this, and my regular work on hip stability as part of a circuit at the end of my workout (which got a bit more volume through a lack of significant trail running) the only other point of interest in my gym program was the upper body work. I kept this in for a few reasons; it helped a lot with poles, it kept my aforementioned shoulder pains at bay, and I enjoyed it on some level (ex-meathead). For those interested, it is generally just compound lifts in pulling and pushing movements, with some specific shoulder health work.
As you may have guessed, I do not get overly technical with different types of ‘sessions’ in my running, mostly through the belief that I do not run enough distance for it to matter more than just adding distance slowly and being meticulous with loading. Likewise, my injury history means I don’t want to push the intensity too much. I generally run 60-90kms/week, and this is split so that I have 2 running free days (Monday and Friday), do a long run Sunday and a short recovery run Saturday. Tuesday and Thursday usually have 2 runs (one longer and one shorter) each and Wednesday has one run. Gym days are Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Reasons for of all this are; I run best on the second day of my running, don’t feel right running 4 days in a row and feel any less than 2 days a week off I really start to hate running. How far I run depends on the loading (with little enough loading I stop doing the second run on a Tuesday and Thursday). My Sunday long run builds through the program and would be where I did most of my elevation when available. None of this is revolutionary, and I doubt many of you think it is too strange.
So, what did I do to prepare for the elevation?
I would love to tell you I ran stairs somewhere, even an office block or ran up a big parking garage’s ramps but alas, this was not possible. Beyond the gym work mentioned above, the answer lay in the dreaded “Stairmaster”.
Once I had enough chronic training load (as a protective factor for injury), I decided to start some regular Stairmaster sessions. With ~2500m vertical gain and multiple sections averaging over 15% gradient, I was of the opinion that stair work was more important than running on an incline treadmill (also I hate the treadmill). For my running abilities (and probably most in the race) there was going to be much more hiking uphill than running on inclines. Additionally, I currently think running flat, and hiking hills is more beneficial in covering all bases than running hills and flats (in the case that you have to hike hills I feel you are less prepared for it, but this is probably minor if anything).
Another part of my hesitance to use treadmills is because treadmill running has a motor driving the belt, reducing the need for your own muscular propulsion.
Added benefits of Stairmaster work include the fact that it has minimal eccentric muscle action. In this case, it thus minimises injury risk and soreness.
In the way of a ‘how to,’ I substituted 1km of running load for about 10mins on the Stairmaster. This is because I track weekly kilometres in my running (not time like the rest of the ultrarunning world for reasons we will not get into). Previously having hiked a lot of hills I have found my pace is roughly 10min/km depending on the incline so I was happy to call 10min the equivalent of a kilometre on the Stairmaster.
I began adding 1-2 sessions of Stairmaster a week, usually by running to and from the gym (~1km each way) and then doing 30mins on the Stairmaster total or adding another kilometre of running around my place with 20mins on the Stairmaster.
Of interest, the cramping/pain I was getting in my adductor/groin area became apparent 10mins into my first Stairmaster session, so I felt it was great prep for the race.
By way of outcome measures, it is hard to know how to evaluate the efficacy of this approach. That said, I am unsure it needs to be done. This is by no means the perfect or even ideal way to train for an event like the Montreux Trail festival. But it is a means to get around having no access to hills.
**(Intended end for prerace writing)
Well, the hurdle appeared the week before the race: in rolled the heat wave. With consecutive days north of 35 degrees C, we were in for a treat. I decided to give up on checking the weather and let things be.
I had already planned to carry 4 x 500ml soft flasks, partially to have the ability to have 2 with electrolytes in them (prefill with powder or the likes to save time and nuisance during the race) and at least 1 extra water flask if needed. I decided pre-race that after having been caught out a few times previously and with the potentially oppressive weather, I would carry a little more rather than a little less fluid, especially due to the difficulty of estimating how long certain segments would take me (this was despite the very generously spaced aid stations).
**(note this is where my prerace writing actually ended)
How did the race go?
Well, it was a massive PB for “time on feet”.
Having not seen previous results and not having great insight into the trail I GRAVELY miscalculated all but my uphill segments.
I ended up running 6:30 for 121st, with my initial goal time of 4:30 being the time the 6th placed runner ran (Winner was 4:07). The Women’s winner ran 5:23 for the record.
Considering this, my nutrition and hydration strategies were perfect and made a huge difference, particularly in the heat (above 31 degrees C at some points).
Likewise, I raced to plan in terms of effort, but I could not match the pace I had planned due to the technicality of the trails.
Training wise, I was well equipped for climbing, managing to pass many people on the climbs, with few passing me (this is unusual for me, let alone in Europe). I also did not have any issues with the previously mentioned cramping feeling in my groin muscle area. The downhills and flats, however, were a different story.
I was very happy to have poles to help with both climbing and descending, surprisingly I didn’t fatigue through my arms and was not sore at all from all the pole use (despite almost 12 months since last using them). I am unsure if this is related to the gym work I do or not.
Overall, I was surprised at how well I pulled up, sure walking down stairs was unpleasant, but I wasn’t THAT sore for very long at all. This may have been related to the increased amount of walking and low intensity nature of the racing (average heart rate was 10-20bpm lower than average heart rate is usually for a trail race; likewise my max was 5-10bpm lower This is even with the heat and increased time on feet meaning I had more potential for cardiac drift).
So, despite the race being more ‘Krueger’ than ‘Mercury’ in many ways, I feel like my preparation was as best as could be hoped for. More time on downhills would have made the most significant difference in both how I performed and recovered, but I really enjoyed my day out none the less. The views had their desired analgesic and anaesthetic effects, and I found myself suffering much less and being more “in the moment” than I have experienced ever before.
By Dr David Lipman
MBBS. BHlthSci(Pod)Hons. BAppSci(HMS)Hons
Doctor, Podiatrist and Exercise Physiologist