Running or Walking Efficiency when Climbing

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VK world record holder, Urban Zemmer

Recently I have produced a couple of articles about how to ensure that you are an efficient walker when participating in long or mountainous events. You can read them HERE and HERE.

The first article discusses Training to Walk for Ultra, Trail and Mountain Running and the second article is about Walking, Running and Climbing with Trekking Poles.

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On December 15th, the University of Colorado Boulder released a document called, CU-Boulder researchers discover optimal range of slopes for extreme uphill running.

This article made me take a look and read in-depth for two reasons: first and foremost it ties in nicely with my previous two articles but more importantly and secondly, research into VK data dates back some 16-years and was pioneered by the ISF (International Skyrunning Federation) who created the VK format as a racing discipline.

To clarify a VK is 1000m of vertical ascent and the objective is to climb the elevation gain as quickly as possible. The original context of the VK always was about research and data.

VK courses vary greatly but the ISF consider a true VK to be under 5km in length. To understand the variables, some VK’s, for example the Dolomites are just over 2km in length. By contrast, Limone Extreme is a considerably longer course with a less extreme gradient.

Fully, Switzerland has long been a testing ground for VK performance and a post from the ISF which was updated 22nd October 2012 adds some very clear and specific points to consider:

“Italy’s Urban Zemmer rocketed up the 1,000m vertical course, only 1.9 km long, in just 30’26”, 20 seconds faster than the standing world record set here in 2011.”

In addition, the ladies records tumbled:

“French runner Christel Dewalle was first in 36’48” followed by Axelle Mollaret in 37’44” and third, Maude Mathys from Switzerland in 37’56, all beating the previous world record set two years ago by Italian Valentina Belotti in 38’50.”

Notably, the ISF commented:

“The new men’s record nears a speed of 2,000 vertical metres per hour (precisely 1,971m) an incredible ground-breaking performance that the ISF has been monitoring for many years in a scientific research project… Depending on the course and type of start, poles are permitted and yesterday, most of the runners used them.  However, to date, the advantages of using poles has not been scientifically demonstrated.”

In 2014, the record for the VK was once again broken by Urban Zemmer at Fully, Switzerland with the incredible time of 29’ 42”.

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Remi Bonnet prefers to run a VK and never walks

So by simple logic (I am no scientist), it would suggest that the steepest course is the fastest as Fully is only 1.9km long. To quote, Run the Alps,The Vertical KM race in Fully, Switzerland is considered to be the fastest vertical kilometer course in the world. The race, held on a former funicular route, is home to both the men’s and women’s world records.”

You can watch a YouTube clip of the 2013 Fully race HERE

Watch the video of Fully and you will see varying techniques, some walk, some walk/ jog, some (most) use poles but one thing is consistent, the effort is almost maximal for all. Therefore, in a non-scientific look at Fully, the fastest performances come from the genetically gifted who have all the elements required for an optimum VK performance: lung capacity, V02max, lactate threshold, power to weight ratio, technique and so on.

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Marco de Gasperi like to mix running and walking

But what about the optimal slopes for uphill running as questioned by CU-Boulder. They posed the question:

“Imagine that you are standing in Colorado at a trailhead where the base elevation is 9,000 feet. Your friend challenges you to race to the summit of the mountain, which tops out at 12,280 feet, roughly 1,000 meters of elevation gain. There are several different trails that go to the summit. They are all steep and some are extremely steep. One trail averages a 10 degree incline and the sign says it is 3.6 miles long. A second trail averages 30 degrees, but is only 1.25 miles long. A third trail averages 40 degrees, but only 1 mile long. To get to the summit the fastest, which trail should you choose and should you walk or run?”

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Poles or no poles on a steep gradient?

This is a question that the ISF have asked and researched for many years. A paper titled, “Energy costs of walking and running uphill and downhill at extreme slopes” looks into this:

Davide Susta, Alberto E. Minetti*, Christian Moia and Guido Ferretti

Département de Physiologie, Centre Médical Universitaire, 1211 Genève 4, Switzerland, *Department of Exercise and Sport Science, Manchester Metropolitan University, Alsager ST7 2HL, U.K.

The energy costs of walking and running (Cw and Cr, respectively, in J kg-1 m-1) increase with the slope uphill (up to +20%) and decrease with the slope downhill (down to -10%) (Margaria, 1938; Margaria et al, 1963). Outside this range, no measurements of Cw and Cr are available in the literature, even though walking and running on the mountains at greater slopes is becoming commoner and commoner practice in leisure and sport. We therefore set out to carry out the present study, the aim of which is to determine Cw and Cr on men walking and running at slopes up to +45% and -45% on the treadmill. After local ethical approval, 10 subjects (Skyrunners) were admitted to the study (age 32.6 + 7.5 years, body mass 61.2 + 5.7 kg, maximal O2 consumption 68.9 + 3.8 ml min-1 kg-1). They are all endurance athletes practicing mountain racing. O2 consumption at the steady state was measured by the open circuit method, using Leybold O2 and CO2 analysers and a Singer dry gas meter. Heart rate was measured by cardiotachography. Blood lactate concentration was determined after each run as a check for submaximal aerobic exercise.

Each subject performed up to three walking and three running trials at progressively increasing speeds on the level, and at the slopes of 10, 20, 30, 35, 40 and 45 % uphill and downhill. The duration of each trial was 4 min, and expired gas was collected during the 4th min of exercise. Minimum Cw on the level was: 

1.85 + 0.57 J kg-1 m-1 (n = 10) at the speed of 0.69 m s-1. During uphill walking, Cw increased with the slope, to attainthevalueof18.08+1.57Jkg-1 m-1 (n=9)atthespeedof0.69ms-1 andat the slope of +45%. During downhill walking, minimum Cw was lower at the slope of -10% (0.81 + 0.37 J kg-1 m-1, n = 9) than on the level. At slopes below -10%, it progressively increased. At -45%, it was 3.46 + 0.95 J kg-1 m-1(n = 5). Cr on the level was 3.40 + 0.24 J kg-1 m-1(n = 30). Cr increased with the slope, to attain 18.69 + 1.42 J kg-1 m-1(n = 6) at +45%. 

During downhill running, Cr decreased and attained its lowest value at the slope of -20% (1.73 + 0.36 J kg-1 m-1, n = 24). At lower slopes, it increased. At -45%, at speeds higher than 1.38 m s-1, it was equal to 3.79 + 0.57 (n = 7). The mechanical efficiency for vertical displacement was 0.216 + 0.015 at +45% and 1.078 + 0.275 at -45%. This data on the level and at slopes up to 20% correspond to those found by others on non-athletic subjects (Margaria, 1938). At higher slopes, the increases in Cw and Cr are such as could be predicted assuming that all energy is used to lift the body. By contrast, at -10% and -20%, both Cw and Cr are lower than in non- athletic subjects (Margaria, 1938), suggesting greater recovery of elastic energy at each step in the present athletes. At slopes below -20%, the increases in Cw and Cr are such as could be predicted assuming that all energy expenditure is for negative muscle contractions.

REFERENCES
Margaria, R. (1938). Atti Acad. Naz. Lincei 7, 299-368.

Margaria, R., Cerretelli, P., Aghemo, P. & Sassi, G. (1963). J. Appl. Physiol. 18, 367-370. This work was supported by a grant from the FSA- Federation.for Sport at Altitude

Referring back to the CU-Boulder research:

“Based on our research, we now know that choosing the second trail (30 degrees) and walking as fast as you can within your aerobic capacity is the fastest way to go,” Kram said. “For either running or walking, slopes between 20 and 35 degrees require nearly the same amount of energy to climb the hill at the same vertical velocity.”

This new study (HERE), which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, is believed to be the first to examine the metabolic costs of human running and walking on such steep inclines (suggested by the CU-Boulder researchers.) However, I would question this and refer to research by the FSA – “Energy cost of walking and running at extreme uphill and downhill slopes.” Received 29 November 2001; accepted in final form 29 April 2002. You can download this detailed documentation HERE and it is essential reading.

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Who is the most efficient?

It would appear that gradients of 20-35 degrees require the same amount of effort and interestingly, CU-Boulder research found in a study:

“A vertical rate of ascent of just over 1 foot per second, is a pace that high-level athletes could sustain during the testing. At that speed, walking used about nine percent less energy than running. So, sub-elite athletes can ascend on very steep uphills faster by walking rather than running.”

In simple terms, this is something I have found out by attempting VK’s in my own time in and around events. More often than not, the effort required to run is so hard that it becomes counter productive. I have even found that including run sections to be counter productive as this raises my heart rate, increases lactate acid and requires me to recover while still climbing. However, if I maintain a constant effort walking, this produces the best results for me.

CU-Boulder research went on to say:

“The study examined 15 competitive mountain runners as they ran and walked on the treadmill at seven different angles ranging from 9 to 39 degrees. The treadmill speed was set so that the vertical rate of ascent was the same.  Thus, the treadmill speeds were slower on the steeper angles. The athletes were unable to balance at angles above 40 degrees, suggesting a natural limit on the feasible slope for a VK competition.”

In regard to the latter point, this in some respects relates to Fully, Switzerland and brings in another element, the use of poles and if poles allow a faster ascent when the gradient steepens. One only has to look at the Dolomites VK and Fully VK where poles are used by nearly all participants. The ISF plan to do a new test with and without ski poles, but it is not easy to do a serious test. Although not scientifically proven, it’s fair to say that using poles with gradients under 20% it will mean more Kcal and a reduced performance. However, with gradients steeper than 25 or 30%, the use of poles can correct style, etcetera and can improve the overall performance.

The CU-Boulder article is available to read in full HERE.

I can quote technical papers and research all day, however, as a runner you want to know the answer to the question, should I walk or should I run uphill and should I use poles?

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Irrespective of if you plan to run a VK or not, the research and thoughts provided by the FSA and CU-Boulder confirm that running or walking uphill provides an incredible workout. Importantly though, research confirms that walking should be a key element in any training plan, (*…walking used about nine percent less energy than running) especially if you are racing or training on hilly or mountainous terrain.

When participating in ultra events, reverting to periods of walking may well produce greater results and faster times. This is very evident when the terrain steepens; running will only expend more energy and produce slower times. The use of poles appears to benefit performance when gradients steepen, this is not scientifically confirmed.

On a final note though, many other factors come into play when looking at results and as with everything, there are exceptions. Urban Zemmer, Remi Bonnet, Laura Orgue, Christel Dewalle and so many more are able to run when others need to walk. We can’t choose our parents or our genetic pool. Ultimately, find out what works for you but practice makes perfect and the more climbing you do, the better and the faster you will become.

Embrace the mountains and going uphill.

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Christel Dewalle, ladies VK world record holder

Speedgoat 50k Preview – The Ladies Field

SpeedgoatMy preview of the race and the men’s field can be viewed HERE, today, it’s the ladies!

The ladies field at Speedgoat doesn’t have the depth of the men’s field but a couple of names stand out. First and foremost is the name, Ruby Muir. Now our Southern Hemisphere followers will be smiling at the prospect at what this Vibram clad runner can do in Utah. She blazed a trail at Tarawera earlier this year and many of us think, me included, that several men will need to be looking over shoulders to ensure that this lady doesn’t come flying past. For me, she is the outright favourite for the win even though she has never raced in the US before. Having spoken to friends of mine who know her, they have all confirmed, she the most naturally gifted runner out on the trail.

Kerrie Bruxvoort placed second at Speedgoat last year and although she didn’t have a great day at Western States recently, I can’t help but think she will try to put that record straight in Utah

A win at UTMF in Japan does mean that Krissy Moehl has some great fitness. Nobody doubts the experience and caliber of this lady but she is more like Francesca Canepa, I see this race being a little too short and too fast. She will doubt figure up front but not top of the podium.

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Francesca Canepa from Italy, also Vibram sponsored (and Montura) will becoming into this race tired, very tired. She must be… she won Ronda dels Cims, went to Wales for the World Trail Champs, she was second at Ice Trail Tarentaise and then just last weekend won the 100km Eiger Trail. Francesca is super talented on long, tough and technical terrain, I just can’t help but think that Speedgoat will be too short and not technical enough.

Jodee Adams Moore is a winner and loves the shorter distances. She will enjoy the 50km distance, the only question will come in regard to the altitude.

A real interesting name to toe the line is Danelle Ballengee. Think back to 2006, Danelle fell of a cliff had a near death experience. It makes for a fascinating read, Google it! She is an experienced Skyrunner and as Skyrunning President, Marino Giacometti says, ‘Danelle has raced in Skyrunning events for over a decade, she is quite a lady’. Danelle may not figure at the very front of the race but it’s great to see her mix it up.

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Emma Roca adds to the European contingent. Third place at TNF UTMB in 2012 plus a list of results the length of my arm, does mean that Emma will mix it up with the ladies at the front.

Joelle Vaught dropped at Western States but she is a top quality runner. A great run at Speedgoat will al depend on what happened at Western States and if she has recovered.

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Karine Sanson from France probably wont contest the podium but it’s great to have another European, along with Francesca taking part. Karineplaced top ten at Ice Trail recently and also figured in the top ten at Transvulcania. Without doubt she can make a similar placing here.

Finally, Anita Ortiz, Speedgoat winner from 2008 will return. She has quite a pedigree but it is almost impossible to say what her current form is like. She has been a US Mountain Running Champion several times, won Western States and she has also won Pikes Peak, so, she has a great mix of endurance, speed and altitude adaptation; she may be a surprise on the day!

Ones to watch: Alicia Shay, Julie Bryan and Bethany Lewis

Links:

Speedgoat 50k HERE

Skyrunning HERE

Philipp Reiter – wonder kid !

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Philipp Reiter makes me laugh… he makes me laugh lots! 21 years old, the world is ahead of him and he embraces each day as though it was his last. His passion for life and running is matched by his appetite for the ‘buffet’ at our hotel. Boy can he eat!

In 2012, he emerged on the ‘world’ stage by clocking up a series of top 10 places and wins that only a fool could ignore. He won the Salaomon Four Trails ahead of Thomas Lorblanchet and Francois d’Haene. He teamed up with teammate, Iker Karrera at Trans Alpine and won. He suffered a little at Transvulcania, ran strong at Trofeo Kima and dug deep at Cavalls del Vent.

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After Trofeo Kima I asked him what his aspirations are for the future….

“I want to be the new Kilian” he replied.

Today, just before we headed out on to the beach to take the photos that you can see in the post, I questioned him again. His answer today?

“I want to beat Kilian”

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He has just spent the last two to three months ski mountaineering and this weekend he lines up at the 83km TNF Trans Gran Canaria to take on a competetive field that includes teammate, Ryan Sandes. With no running in his legs is it possible to perform over 83km on tough trail? Philipp thinks so.

On the trails yesterday, Philipp flew off like a man possessed. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t run… no small stops to ease himself in. No, not at all. He bounded and leaped down the trail as though some binding shackles had been removed.

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“When you take the skis off and run, you feel so light. It’s incredible. It’s a joy to run” said Philipp in my 30+ min interview scheduled to be aired in episode 30 of Talk Ultra on March 8th.

“The break from running freshens the mind, it’s a good thing, I love sport, I love cycling, I love going to the gym, I love variety. That is what is so exciting about what I do”

You can see the logic. Look at his peer group; Kilian Jornet, Nuria Picas, Emelie Forsberg and so on… they all turn from trails to snow in the winter months.

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This coming weekend will show us how Philipp’s form is after months of no running. But ultimately the 83km on Saturday are only small and tiny steps on what will be a very interesting 2013 season.

A full set of images from today are available HERE

You can see how Philipp gets on against Ryan Sandes and the other runners at : http://www.transgrancanaria.net

You can listen to my interview with Philipp on the next episode of Talk Ultra. It will be available for ‘free’ download on iTunes, Libsyn and talk ultra.com.

ITunes http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/talk-ultra/id497318073

Website – talkultra.com