Trail running
July 2024

How many meters in altitude should it be?

Steep is cool - the motto from the freeride sector also applies to mountain running for some. But is mountain running even trail running and how many meters of altitude are actually recommended?

How many meters in altitude should it be?

Your trail running rucksack is packed, your shoes are laced up and your motivation is high: it's time to set off on your first trail run in the mountains. You have already planned everything on the map and thought about your exact route: uphill, downhill, always along the well-marked hiking trail, perhaps over several peaks or pass crossings. The calculated difference in altitude for the entire tour: less than 1000 meters. So everything easy?

How many meters of altitude should it be?

We humans are strange. As soon as we're told to walk a kilometer, we roll our eyes and think it's a long and arduous walk. When someone tells us that they have climbed 1000 meters, everyone who has no experience in mountain sports thinks: well, what's he doing, that's just one kilometer.

Anyone who has ever had to run up just this one last 150-metre climb after a long run knows how much even such supposedly short climbs can drag on and take their toll. Especially when a good old friend, hunger pangs, have struck again. So as a beginner, how should I plan my first trail runs in the mountains so that I return to my starting point feeling challenged but not overwhelmed?

Start small, increase slowly

It is advisable to start with runs that cover more distance than meters in altitude. These can be routes, for example, whose starting or finishing point can be reached by mountain railroads or where you can start high up due to a good access route (keyword Alpine passes: hiking trails lead from many pass roads in all directions and enable us to start high up in the mountains).

Let's move on to more concrete figures. If you are in very good physical condition, you can certainly start with ascents of 400-600 meters in altitude. But be careful: there is a difference between running up a long, steady climb with this altitude difference and a very steep climb. Think of the hiking trails, some of which are laid out on the terrain of ski slopes and which all too often take the direttissima (in climbing, the direttissima is the direct line from the start to the summit).

It also makes a difference that should not be underestimated whether we cover the altitude meters in one go, whether the main ascent is at the beginning or end of our run or whether there are several smaller ascents with 100-200 altitude meters each. Each of these scenarios can have a very different effect on the perceived exertion of your run. Especially on the first few trails, you should feel your way slowly and find out what type of climb suits you.

Steep, steeper, steepest - the difference between trail running and mountain running

A trail run is not necessarily a mountain run, and a mountain run is not necessarily a trail run. A trail is usually an unpaved path such as a hiking trail. In some cases, however, trail running even involves running on unpaved terrain.

A mountain run, on the other hand, can be absurdly steep, but still take place on paved paths (the author knows what he's talking about: if you're interested, you can try running on the farm roads in the vineyards around Sion in the Rhone Valley in Valais - climbs in the high double-digit percentage range, scorching sun and a warm, strong wind included).

So always think about what you want to achieve before your run. A long trail run with several small climbs can be more satisfying than the supposedly "higher quality" VK (Vertical Kilometer) or other routes limited to pure uphill running. After a mountain run, you will often be pretty exhausted, whereas a balanced trail run allows you to really enjoy the flow and still have time for views of the often beautiful landscape around you.

And you should never forget that the ascent is only half the battle and in most cases you should also come back down again. The effort involved in running downhill is different to running uphill, but is only slightly inferior in terms of intensity.

So steep is cool only applies to a limited extent: If you want to give it your all on a mountain run, such climbs over many meters of altitude and on steep trails can be very useful for your training condition. However, mountain runs are less suitable as an introduction to the world of trail running and you should pay particular attention to longer, easy routes with plenty of variety. This is because varied terrain also means that the tour goes by much faster than a monotonous run along a hiking trail through some high valley up to a pass that just won't come any closer.

Don't forget to acclimatize to the altitude

On runs where you don't exceed an altitude of 2000 meters (this mainly applies to runs in low mountain ranges or in the foothills of the Alps), you don't normally need to pay any special attention to acclimatization. If, on the other hand, you are running in the Alps and may only start above 2000 meters (for example by using a cable car), you should be aware that your body will have to perform at its best at an altitude it is not used to. The same ascent 1000 meters lower down can feel much easier than starting a long run at an altitude of more than 2000 meters.

We are familiar with the same problem in mountain sports. There, however, we move much more slowly and gain altitude less quickly. At the same time, the level of exertion is lower. When trail running at high altitudes, an extra dose of caution is therefore always advisable and if you experience altitude problems such as discomfort, loss of appetite, headaches and/or dizziness, you should not push through your run without compromise, but rather consider a variant with a descent to lower altitudes, ideally planned in advance. The good thing about these symptoms of altitude sickness is that they improve very quickly on their own on the descent to lower altitudes - and things often get much better on the next ascent.

What tactics do we recommend?

Personally, I'm a big fan of routes along ridges or easy ridges. Here you often have a wonderful view in all directions and almost get the feeling of floating above the valley (especially if it's slightly downhill). There are many such trails in the Alps that run through terrain that is not too difficult. The difficulty should be in the T1 - T2 range, because then you really get into a running flow and don't have to constantly watch your feet.

Furthermore, you can also avoid many herds of cows or sheep with guard dogs on such routes, as these encounters are unfortunately not always harmless. As everywhere in the mountains, stable weather conditions without the risk of thunderstorms must prevail, especially on exposed ridges. In the event of a thunderstorm, it is therefore important to plan well so that you don't get caught in a storm in the first place - and if it does happen, get off the ridge and find a sheltered spot.

Altitude meters on trail running routes - a summary

In summary, it can be said that trail runs with 400 - 800 meters of altitude distributed over the entire route are probably the most beautiful runs. Anything over 1000 meters of elevation gain is tough and an appropriate level of fitness is a mandatory requirement for such runs. As a beginner, it is therefore better to start with a little less altitude and above all enjoy your run. As your fitness increases, sooner or later you will automatically have to tackle bigger climbs and you will find that they suddenly don't feel as tough as they did when you first started out as a trail runner.

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