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Training

Four Training Priorities to Become a Better Trail Runner

How Mario Mendoza is training to conquer the alps at the UTMB 100-mile trail run this August.

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By all accounts, Mario Mendoza is an accomplished human: He’s a husband, father, pastor, and community activist. He’s also an accomplished runner. Mendoza’s running shifted from road running to trail running in 2010, and he has a long list of wins, podium finishes, former world records, and awards. If there’s one distance that Mendoza hasn’t cracked yet, however, it’s the 100-miler.

“I’ve only run three 100 mile races, and I haven’t gotten the best out of myself,” says Mendoza. “I’ve run really well up to the 100k, but the 100 miler still scares me.”

Instead of shying away from his fear, he’s tackling it head on. The last week in August, Mendoza is racing what he calls “the Tour de France of trail running,” namely, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).

One way Mendoza is approaching this race differently is that he’s working with a coach for the first time: Mario Fraioli, who coached Tim Tollefson to third place finishes at UTMB in 2016 and 2017. Mendoza and Fraioli have identified four areas to focus on for improving his efforts at UTMB: becoming a better hiker, getting fast on the flats, and building a resilient body.

Become a Better Hiker

With over 30,000 feet in vertical gain across 105 miles at UTMB, runners will spend a large portion of their time hiking with poles.

“If you are not efficient when going uphill, you’re going to use more energy than necessary and be in a higher heart rate zone, which will cause you to fatigue early on,” says Mendoza. “Learning to be efficient when going up hill is really, really key to these long ultras.”

“We don’t have a lot of races like UTMB in the U.S. where you’re in big mountains and it requires you to hike as part of your strategy,” says Fraioli. “I think with American runners, particularly those who come from a traditional running background, some of it is almost a point of pride: ‘I’m a runner, runners run, I want to run this whole course.’ It takes them a while to realize that it’s a different sport and you need to develop different skills. Being able to move efficiently uphill while using poles and carrying a pack is something you need to develop; you can’t just do it.”

Runners hike with poles during much of the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail (UTMB) race around the Mont-Blanc.
Runners hike with poles during much of the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail (UTMB) race around the Mont-Blanc. Photo: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

Training Strategy

To help Mendoza improve his hiking, Fraioli incorporated uphill repetitions on the longest, sustained, and steepest hill that he can find. Early in his training block, Mendoza didn’t use poles or wear a pack because he was focusing on developing his climbing ability and overall fitness. As Mendoza got within 6–10 weeks from race day, he’s worn a full pack and use poles, like he will in the race.

Get fast on the flats

“For a race like this, running flats isn’t as important as if you were running a super fast course, but it’s still important,” says Mendoza. “The smoother you are in running, the more efficient speed you have, the slower the pace will feel, and you’ll be able to move on that rolling terrain.”

Mendoza benefits from coming from a road running background, which means he has natural speed and plenty of experience with smooth, flat, fast running. Although running flats is the lowest priority for Mendoza’s training given the highly-undulating UTMB course, Fraioli doesn’t want to get too far from what comes most naturally to him during training.

“Sprinkling flatter, faster running into Mendoza’s training can be just as psychologically stimulating as it is physiologically beneficial,” says Fraioli. “I think it’s important to literally switch gears every once in a while so he’s not getting too far away from his bread and butter, from what made him great in the first place.”

Training Strategy

For faster, flatter running, Fraioli recommends runners get in 30 minutes worth of work, typically structured as two to five minute efforts with two to three minutes rest in between.

For example, he’s had Mendzona do three by ten minute intervals at a hard effort, or ladders, starting at one minute and building by one-minute increments until he reaches five minutes, and then coming back down in one-minute steps, totally exactly 30 minutes of work.

Dominate Descents

Descending is very tricky,” says Mendoza. “Looking at previous experiences, I’d pass runners on the uphill, and as soon as we’re halfway down the mountain, they’d fly right past me. Descending has been one of the missing pieces for these big mountain races, and it will be a key piece for me if I want to do well.”

Besides not wanting to lose time while going down, the fatigue from the miles and hours will take their toll, and while he can rest his aerobic system coming down, his joints and muscles will be experiencing as much, or more, stress — so it’s important that Mendoza learns how to run efficiently and confidently downhill.

“The musculoskeletal demands on the body are much greater with descending than with ascending, and runners are typically going faster downhill, so their bodies are tiring more than their engine,” says Fraioli. “To prepare Mendoza for descending, we’re focusing on making his body as resilient as possible to handle the demands of descending.”

You have to train to be able to descend efficiently when running a race like the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB)
You have to train to be able to descend efficiently when running a race like the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) Photo: Erik SAMPERS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Training Strategy

“What goes up, must come down,” says Fraioli.

To take advantage of the uphill intervals Mendoza does to build fitness and improve efficiency, Fraioli has Mendoza run down at a quick, controlled pace where he can let his heart rate recovery from the hard effort, but can still work on his footwork, cadence, and building more resilience in his muscles from the eccentric stress of running downhill.

“I’ll have Mendoza run downhill because it’s a great training stimulus,” says Fraioli. “At a race like UTMB, he’ll be doing that the entire time, going straight up and straight down.”

Build a Resilient Body

If Mendoza has a great race, he’ll likely be on the course for 20-22 hours, which places incredible demands on the body.

“Events like UTMB require the runner to be a robust athlete because there’s a lot of running, hiking, and navigating tricky terrain,” says Fraioli. “The stronger you are, the more robust you are, and the better equipped you’re going to be to handle whatever the course throws at you, especially in the latter stages when body breakdown is inevitable.”

Training strategy

On top of being a runner, Mendoza is a dad, active member of his community, and pastor. Suffice to say, Mendoza doesn’t have a lot of extra time for strength training, but he recognizes its importance. To that end, Mendoza has two programs he alternates between, both of which he can complete in less than 30 minutes.

Strength Program One

Mendoza started his strength training doing these four exercises 4–5 times per week. After completing this program for a few weeks, he reduced its frequency to three times per week, and added in a more strenuous strength training program the other two days.

  1. Split squats | 30 seconds each leg | 4 sets
  2. Side planks | 30 seconds each side | 4 sets
  3. Single legged Romanian dead lift | 30 seconds each leg | 4 sets
  4. Single legged bridges | 30 seconds each leg | 4 sets

“By round four, you definitely start feeling it,” says Mendoza. “Your own body weight starts to get hard.”

Strength Program Two

After getting comfortable with the four exercise routine 4–5 times per week, Mendoza started incorporating more strenuous strength training into his week. Today, he does this program on his hard running days.

“I don’t want to place a high amount of stress on my body on my easy days because I need my body to recover, so I’ll do this strength program on my two days when I have a more challenging workout,” says Mendoza.

Warm Up

  1. Walking high knees 30 seconds
  2. Backward lunges 30 seconds
  3. Running in place 30 seconds
  4. Jumping Jacks 30 seconds
  5. Running in place 30 seconds
  6. Butt kicks 30 seconds
  7. Running in place 30 seconds
  8. High knees 30 seconds
  9. Running in place 30 seconds
  10. Rope climbers 30 seconds

Main Set

45 seconds on, 15 seconds rest between exercises

  1. Skater to squat jump
  2. Mountain climbers
  3. Jumping lunges
  4. Russian twists
  5. Single legged bridges
  6. Plank with shoulder taps

Here’s a video of how to perform this workout.

Lateral hurdle hops, a performance workout in Optimize Your Stride

For a complete program to build a resilient, robust body, check out our online course, Optimize Your Stride with Jay Dicharry, free to Outside+ members.