Mountain Running: Everything You Need To Know

Moving to terrain with unfamiliar elevation, or just visiting someplace where you will have a new opportunity to explore hills and mountains? Whether you are relocating or just traveling when you decide to lace up your shoes and run you may be a little shocked to realize how different things are. There are many things to consider before you go mountain running. But don’t let the fear of the unknown stop you!

Difficulties of High Altitude Running

As soon as your body is taxed at a high altitude, it starts to react. If you are not acclimated to high altitude training you may find you are in for a rude awakening. In the mountains, there is less air pressure. The lower air pressure means that when working out at a high altitude the oxygen content in your blood will decrease.

Less oxygen in the blood means it is more difficult for you to breathe even when walking around. To imagine how this translates into running, think about how your breathing gets labored when you complete a hard workout. This feeling will increase exponentially in high altitudes.

It can take weeks to adjust to higher altitudes. If you are simply visiting someplace with a higher altitude, prepare to be patient with yourself. If you are relocating, still be patient but after a time your body will acclimate! It can take weeks to get accustomed to the high altitude so for people simply visiting, you will probably not find your running getting any easier.

How Do You Run Up a Mountain?

Speaking briefly with anyone who does mountain running will net you one realization: you may not actually be running up a mountain. Even experienced mountain runners find themselves doing something between a hike and a jog up the sides of mountains, and running down. This is for more than one reason.

First, unless you are running on a road up the side of a mountain, the terrain can be challenging. The Grandfather Mountain Critter Crawl in South Carolina, for example, has participants running on a road up the side of a mountain. In a circumstance such as this, the terrain is not your challenge: working your way up steep inclines is!

Grandfather Mountain Critter Crawl

When scaling a mountain path, on the other hand, you will be challenged in other ways. Paths and trails will likely have obstacles in your way. Watching your footing for rocks, sticks, twigs, fallen trees and holes in the ground is crucial. Especially if you are not in a highly traveled area. One false move could render you injured and unable to find your way back!

Kirsten Reynolds

Kirsten Reynolds: Acclimating to living in the mountains meant swallowing my pride and learning to hike up a mountain instead of feeling like I had to run. 


Forget everything you have been told about focusing your line of sight 10-15 yards ahead of you while running when you are in the mountains. You need to be keeping your eyes on your footfalls to avoid trouble.

Chad Hause footing
Chad Hause

In addition, be careful of where your feet will fall. Anticipating what lies just ahead of you is advised to keep your footing. Taking a spill on a mountain trail can lead to a rolled ankle, lacerated knees, or injuring your wrists or hands if you use them to break your fall.

Hiking Up Challenging Portions

When going through a particularly difficult or steep portion, it’s best to just come to grips with the idea that you will need to hike through instead of running. Hiking at a brisk pace can help the athlete to save energy through taxing areas. The takeaway here is that mountain running is not always running.

Safety Considerations

When deciding to tackle a mountain, there are some things you should consider.

  • Training Buddy: Especially if you are unfamiliar to trail and/or mountain running, bring a buddy.
  • Route: At the very least, be sure someone knows where you are going and is expecting to hear from you within a certain amount of time.
  • Hydration & Fuel: Bare minimum, you should carry water and some type of food, for sure.
  • Other Supplies: Depending on wildlife in the area, you may wish to bring bear spray, a whistle or other items. Believe it or not, some runners carry a small handgun in particularly desolate areas. A flashlight and mylar blanket are also good things to throw into your pack. Even on a warm day, it can get cold quickly in the mountains. Consider a light jacket.
  • Cell Phone: Few runners would travel into the mountains without a cell phone. If you like to run unplugged, this is not the time to do so. Understand, though, that you may not get reception as you venture further up.
  • ID: Never head out for a run without carrying some form of identification in case of an emergency.

Advice From Average Jane

Linda Reilly
Linda Reilly

Linda Reilly: an avid ultramarathon runner, she has two great pieces of advice. First, she says not to be afraid to explore. “The best part of trail running is the new adventures!” Second, she strongly encourages mountain runners to invest in a pair of quality trail shoes. They make a huge difference when climbing or descending rocky trails. 

Why Is Hill Running So Hard

Most people assume running up a hill will be the challenging portion. Shockingly few people consider the act of running down a hill, and how taxing that can be on the body. When hammering up the hill, shortening your stride and leaning into the hill can prove helpful. Looking up the hill can seem daunting, so focus just a few feet ahead of your feet instead.

When running down a hill it is important to remain in control. Lengthen your stride out a bit and take advantage of the gravity making you faster. Do not fall into the dangerous trap of moving too fast and potentially falling.

If you are on a trail or path, be very careful of footfalls so you don’t trip and lose your balance.

Another challenge of incline training is it will prove difficult on the hamstrings when going up and quads when going down. This makes hill workouts full-body training.

Advice From Average Joe

Bethany Darschewski-Van Beek: at Telluride, CO
Bethany Darschewski-Van Beek: at Telluride, CO

Bethany Darschewski-Van Beek: “I love running in the mountains on trails. It is very surreal. It is so nice to not listen to cars driving by. Words of wisdom include,  “Always pick up your feet, no shuffling! Watch where you are going!  I have tripped so many times on roots or rocks. Always run prepared: 1) Bring water for sure. 2) I like running with my dogs because of the wildlife. 3)  I also run with a camelback that has a whistle, bear spray, and a bear bell.”

Mt. Marcy, VT, Mt. Marcy, VT
T.J.Thies VT, Mt. Marcy, VT

T.J. Thies: “Best advice I can give ya? Take your time. Packway more than you think you need. If you are going above treeline, bring a jacket and maybe a pair of gloves. Enough to keep warm but nothing overkill.” (Remember, you have to carry it all!) Most important? “Take your time to enjoy the view!”

Go For It!

Whether you are new to exploring hills or going to take on full-on mountain running, just be certain you are adequately prepared. Running mountains and hills can net you a breathtaking vantage point for seeing the world beneath your feet!

Mountain Running 101
Cover Photo Credit: Claudia Biester from Beastermode Running

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