How to Start Running Up Mountains (Skyrunning) in Southeast Asia

Running up a mountain is really hard, but totally worth it. Here are the steps to get started.

1. Get seriously fit

If you can’t run a half marathon comfortably, you’re probably more like a skyhiker like the rest of us. If you are seriously fit, consider how you can train first for trail-running. For this, run on trails whenever you can. To find them, you can look for the green spaces in Google Maps near you, or you can more clues from Strava’s heat map, or GaiaGPS, or HIkeBikeMap.

If you don’t have a trail handy, then keep running on roads/paths/treadmills, but do exercises to strengthen the ligaments and tendons in your ankles and feet and improve your balance. The aim is to prepare your road-running feet and legs for the shock of having a more dynamic terrain to tread on, thereby reducing the risk of injuring yourself.

Then bring in the vertical dimension. Train on hills in particular, both running up and down.

A good peak-bagging site or app can help find nearby hills that aren’t obvious. At this point, joining a skyrunning or trail-running club, or even just an online forum, can also help to get some good insider tips on trails.

When you can’t run on hills, try running with ankle-weights to build leg muscles. If you find your heart rate going up too much, add more weight until the legs are the limiting factor rather than your heart (and get more fit too). In the gym, try squats, leg-presses, leg curls, and calf raises. Then go find some stairs to run up and down.

2. Invest in the right gear

Most importantly, shoes: Trail running shoes are not the same as road running shoes. Although they vary within the category considerably, the key distinctions are the better grip in the lug, a more protective sole, and more dynamic stability and support. In some ways, they split the difference between a hiking shoe and a runner by being light-weight but more protective. However, the varieties of such shoes that are best for vertical athletes tend to have more protection around the toes to guard against the impact of overstepping on an upward step and toe-smushing on downward steps. Some also have a less bendy front part of the sole to offer more stability on the ascent, and a more cushioned heel for less shock on the descent.

Trail running clothing tends to be similar to running clothing but more tough-wearing to fend off snags with the vegetation and insect life. But, when it comes to vertical ascents, you need to consider your progress through temperatures from hot to cold. Full-length tights or microfibre pants, a long sleeved top of breathable synthetic material, like a cyclist’s top, is probably your best bet, even if it leaves you feeling a bit stuffy at low levels. Ideally, you will have pockets somewhere out of the way – such as in the rear of your top – to whip out a lightweight windproof jacket and maybe a light beanie for when you get higher up.

Wear new, dry, comfy socks – taller the better for protecting from scratches from passing vegetation. You should seriously consider gaiters, even though they add weight, drag, and dorkiness to your legs. Short gaiters will keep a whole lot of mess from getting into your shoes, especially when scrambling on loose and rocky terrains such as the upper slopes of volcanoes in Indonesia. For such mountains where you can expect a bit of a scramble, bring light-weight gloves too, as Southeast Asia’s mountains tend to be either rough igneous rocks or limestone which can be really abrasive.

The rest of the gear tends to overlap with trail-running. A hydration pack or vest that stores your water or gels, or even foods for the longer runs, can be great so long as it is snug and won’t bounce around on the descent. Consider polarised sport glasses that help reduce glare and make the trail nuances more visible in bright light and shadows that you can encounter both in forests and up the slopes.

You might also consider what technology you might need. It’s nice to be minimalist, especially when you want to be more engaged with nature. But consider a phone for use in an emergency situation, such as if you injure yourself, get lost, or see a yeti. It’s hard to pass up a summit selfie too.

3. Before running, prepare

Get the right nutrition into you. You’re going to be burning so many calories over a number of hours that you really have to take glycogen replenishment seriously. Carbohydrates such as bananas, sweet potatoes, and dates can be good. Nuts with high calorific value and good fats such as cashews can be good too. Getting some protein in can help reduce muscle breakdown for really long runs. Certain foods can help reduce inflammation on your joints. Tumeric and ginger roots are reputedly great for this. Ideally, make choices that can be easily digested and aren’t going to upset your stomach. A good athletic muesli / oat bar tends to pack all these things into a tiny space, making them pretty ideal.

Hydration is key. Drink around 16 ounces (or half a litre) a couple of hours before the run so that its absorbed and not sloshing around in your tummy. Don’t drink more than that though, as it will just mean you’ll be peeing more during the run. Then have a drink of about 3 to 6 ounces (100 to 200ml) every 15 mins or so. You’re not likely to encounter a water station up a mountain, so you’re depending on your hydration pack or belt. Needless to say, you will want to rehydrate plenty when you’re finished.

Shortly before the run, express yourself in the bathroom, put on some sunscreen, maybe some insect repellant if you’re in Southeast Asia, maybe some fresh nail polish because why not, and gear up.

Of course, you gotta stretch. Get those glutes, quads, hammies, and calves nice and loose before they get killed on the ascent. Get your knees, ankles and hips ready for the shocks, particularly before the descent.

Take the right steps before trying to run up a mountain

4. Start slow

With skyrunning, you can just forget about mile splits. They’re not that relevant. Instead, you’re looking for a consistent effort level and minimising your risk of injuring yourself. So set a goal, figure out what overall pace you need to set, and realise that nobody is judging you. For most of us, making it to the top in good time is a pretty good goal to set.

When you’re first starting out on trails, and on ascents, don’t even push yourself. You need to build up those ankle muscles, especially if you’ve been doing nothing but road or treadmill running your whole life. Give yourself time to familiarise yourself with your (new) equipment, and the new type of running, where your foot placement and balance will take a lot of your attention. If you’re going up a mountain, don’t be afraid to walk. If you start off running, you’ll be walking eventually – you’re only human after all. Don’t be afraid to stop and rest – you probably have an amazing view to enjoy just behind you.

Falling get serious when you’re on a mountain. So find out where the dangers are, and what equipment choices are best for them. Take corners slow, and go downhill slow, and run at a pace that allows you to keep your footing and balance at all times. Figure out the right time to run given how the timing, as well as the weather, changes the trail and its hazards. Don’t attempt night running at first, or running in the wet – that requires different equipment and skills.

You should also consider getting familiar with the trail before pushing yourself more. Consider the first few runs of a new trail or mountain as trial runs (note: trail and trial must be getting mixed up by speed readers here). Then once you know what to expect from the trail, increase your speed a bit, but never expect to be able to do what you would on a road.

5. Know some basic rules for safety and courtesy 

Be safe out there. It’s always more safe and more fun to climb a mountain with friends, and same goes for skyrunning if you can find people with a similar level of fitness. Trail running groups are a great place to start. Always let people know where you’re going, especially if you’re alone, but even if you’re in a group.

On most mountains, you’ll need to be self-reliant. Carry all the water you’ll need, and try to find out where other water sources are in case you need more. Also research where you can get help if you need, and don’t stray off the trail as it makes search and rescue operations so much more difficult when you fall over or get stuck somewhere. Of course, if you see someone in need on the trail, don’t expect someone else will help them – you’re it.

Pay close attention to the weather. It can get a bit more curly up mountains, and when you are wearing minimal gear for a run, a nasty change of weather can make the experience pretty grim. This can be hard to predict in certain parts of Southeast Asia. Especially closer to the equator and in monsoon season you can never guarantee that it won’t rain, and it can sometimes come with little warning.

Know the rules of the trail. Yield to those coming downhill, especially if they’re runners. Run single file – there’s rarely enough space for two side-by-side on mountain trails. Don’t tailgate either. Let people pass, and let people know you’re passing. We want to avoid a “conga line”, which is especially prevalent in races. Again, avoid running off the trail even for a few metres, and that includes for puddles – running around puddles makes them grow larger, and isn’t as fun as running through them anyhow.

Finally, leave nothing but footprints, and take nothing but photos.

6. Embrace it

Skyrun with a smile and a sense of joy. You’re going to be doing something incredible through incredible places, and maybe with some incredible people. Be open to what the experience brings, and enjoy every bit of it.

If you’re having trouble in getting into this frame of mind, the 9 attitudes of mindfulness are a good way to troubleshoot. Approach the trail with curiosity about the places you go, the things you see, and about how your body is going to deal with it, even if you’ve done that trail many times before. Accept that you’re going to suffer, but do so without judgement about whether it’s good or bad to be suffering. Accept also that you’re not going to be in control of all the variables in the way you are on a treadmill, but trust that everything is going to be just fine. Be patient with your body and the mountain. Fully engage with the challenge it presents, but don’t let your striving get in the way of being open to everything else. Just be grateful that the mountain and it’s beauty is still there for you, that you’re there too, and that you’re still moving.

Running up mountains is well and good, but save strength for the descent
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