Training for The Goat Tongariro

There’s only one month to go before The Goat - the volcanic adventure run. This will be my first time participating in this event, and I have prepared my own training program for the remaining four weeks.


For those not familiar with the race, The Goat is approx 20K with 1,000 metres of vertical ascent and channels runners through unique terrain of ancient lava fields, grasslands and waterfalls. Running fast and smoothly through this terrain is the biggest challenge – I’m sure most trail runners that have spent time in the area would agree with me.

One month might not sounds like a lot of time to prepare for the race, but it all depends on the starting point. In this case, sometimes even a few weeks is enough to condition for a specific race with specific racing demands (for example: long downhill segments, technical terrain, long steep uphill segments etc.). In other cases, longer preparation is necessary to match race demands. I use this approach (of determining your ‘starting point’) for my own training and when coaching my athletes.

So today I start from a:

  • Reasonable cardiovascular fitness (after 2 months dedicated to road running and speed)

  • Reasonable overall speed on flat terrain (recent 5K 15:31)

  • Slightly limited uphill strength (not enough time spent training on hilly terrain)

  • Limited uphill climbing power on steep uphill slopes

  • Limited weekly/monthly training volume (70 to 90K per week), which needs to go up

…. therefore my goals for the next month to condition for the race

  • Incorporate 2 x HIIT sessions per week dedicated to uphill running fitness

  • Incorporate downhill and technical terrain drills

  • Increase weekly training volume for the next 3 weeks

  • 2 x S&C sessions per week (minimum)

  • At least two long runs (>20K) per week

Week 1

As you can see, week one is not entirely easy one. Two high intensity workouts combined with higher overall weekly mileage is always a challenge. Before doing 1K uphill intervals (scheduled for Friday) I have completed an uphill conditioning session (Tuesday’s session with 20 to 45s uphill intervals), which aims to improve musculoskeletal readiness for longer uphill intervals. Longer and tougher sessions are separated my easier/recovery days and I will try to include supplementary training in a form of plyometric drills and core conditioning exercises to maintain overall fitness.

Week 2

Week two is a race week (Waihi Trail Half), therefore, any quality workouts have to be shifted to the beginning of the week. As this is only a training race, I will taper for a few days (which could be different for other key running events). Two quality workouts will cover essential aspects of fast trail racing – speed and uphill strength. I usually modify the intensity of final workouts before the race, and instead of going all-out or 90% of all speed capacity, I choose to do session at threshold intensity (say, 70-80% of speed capacity). I find that running every day before the race gives more confidence and keeps body sharp.

Week 3

Back to training. Hopefully it will not take long to recover after Waihi Half, and I will try to speed up recovery by foam rolling, stretching, sauna and possibly a massage. This week’s focus - another two cardiovascular sessions. For Wednesday’s session, I will choose an uphill slope that is not too steep, in order to challenge both cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. But for Friday’s sessions, the uphill slope (for 30s intervals) has to be steep in order to get maximal engagement from gluteal (aka. butt) muscles. From mid-week I will limit my longer runs up to 90mins to allow enough time for muscles to recover, and if necessary will take one extra day of recovery, as all that matters at this stage are key speed/uphill workouts.

Week 4

Race week. This week’s training is a relatively standard approach to the race week. Trying to stay active every day up to the race day. Getting one conditioning session early in the week will hit higher heart rate zones without fatiguing body too much. Also, the last two days before the race I am hoping to be on the course. A few short runs should be sufficient to refresh the memory of the tracks and get into a racing mood.

Enjoy The Goat!

Running Workouts (2): Context is everything when you do 1-min uphill intervals

One of the most valuable abilities for trail runners is to maintain good running technique and intensity during uphill segments during a race or a trail running session. Uphill intervals are the way to go if you want to become better, and it is best to start from something simple.

1-minute uphill (and downhill) workout! 

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Improve uphill running strength

Improve transition between uphill downhill efforts

Develop good pacing strategy

Work on ability to stay extremely focused

Improve trail running memory and analytical skills

Have a good time training


Find an uphill segment of trail path with moderate to high technical difficulty

[doing this session on technically easy uphill segment will still be beneficial]

Duration of the segment: 1 to 2 mins

Distance: approx 150-300m

I would avoid dangerously technical trails with big unstable rocks (high injury risk)



Warm-up | running at easy intensity for 15-20 minutes

Stretching + Running drills | the part of dynamic warm-up – high knees drill, butt-kicks drill, skipping, short 50-meter sprints. Running drills are important because they warm-up your core and leg musculature and make you physically ready for the mainset intervals. Add a light 5-min stretch of the major muscle groups (hamstrings, calves) to restore neuromuscular balance.

Main set | 6-10 time of 1-min (hard intensity, at 95% capacity) with recovery going downhill at easy pace

Normal version:

1 rep = 1 x hard uphill effort on technical trails (1 min)

+ 5-10s to catch a breath

+ slow descent on the same path (1-1.5min)

+ recover for 30s at the bottom and repeat again (6 to 10 times)


Advanced version: 1-min uphill efforts with immediate downhill at hard pace

1 rep = 1 x hard uphill effort on technical trails (1 min)

+ 5-10s to catch a breath

+ 1 x fast descent (45s)

+ 1 min recovery at easy pace or standing recovery and repeat again (6 to 10 times)

Additional tasks:

[1] downhill part (including catching a breath on the top) has to be faster than overall climb = good pacing

[2] maintain complete focus and good body control during descent

[3] try to memorise tricky bits (roots, rocks, muddy segments) during first ascents and try find a better strategy to run through them in the following attempts

[4] make the final climb the fastest and go at recovery pace in the last downhill segment

Cool-down | easy jog for 10 minutes, to bring the heart rate down



Struggling with?

Uphill strength?

·       Work on your uphill running technique. Usually making smaller steps helps to be more efficient in uphill running

·       Regularly include uphill intervals in your training program. It is a good idea to start from short 30s-2min uphill intervals before progressing to longer (3-10min) intervals

·       Strength training in the gym can make you better at running uphill. Focus on building strength in lower leg muscles, with squatting and lunging exercises

Running fast downhill?

·       Improve your posture when running downhill. Work on your core muscles. They will help with better posture and control. Avoid excessive backward lean or forward bend as this will affect your control, and try to maintain almost straight upper body posture

·       Maintain high step rate (cadence). This will help you to have more control. Plyometric drills help to improve your ability to move feet quickly

Transition between uphill and downhill?

·       Pacing pacing pacing. Think in advance what will happen when you will reach the top. See in your mind a full workout structure and not only single uphill interval. Distribute your effort in order to have enough energy to start downhill running almost immediately after reaching the top

Maintaining concentration on downhill?

·       Expand your awareness by not only looking what is below your feet but have a momentarily glance at the track ahead of you. You brain will calculate a good path for you.

·       Dedicate specific moments in your regular trail runs to practice concentration drills. These are short 2 to 5min segments where you put a lot of attention to how you run, your surrounding environment, track ahead of you. Try to be aware of all of this at the same time.

Here are a few related articles that could improve your uphill running skills:

Uphill running skills HERE

VK Treadmill Challenge HERE

12-wk training plan HERE

Assessing your progress as a trail runner

The diversity that trail running offers is one of its main appeals, however it can be difficult to assess how our training is progressing. The variability between sessions on the trail can hamper our ability to predict future performance. Similarly, races differ in terrain, technicality, and elevation, so comparisons between race performances aren’t like-for-like. 

Trail runners aren’t alone. There are other sports (for example climbing and sailing) that have a similar challenge of setting performance checkpoints to assess training progress. This post outlines some objective measures that you can use to rate your trail running progress. I’ve also added some of the more subjective measures that I use to assess my own trail running fitness. 

Note that when I say performance, this isn’t just restricted to speed. Improvement can also be about running longer, maintaining good running form, or finishing strong.

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Some (loosely) objective measures

Repeating the same race
Pros: Good marker of improvement (if the course doesn’t change).
Cons: Weather conditions can (and will!) influence the race outcome. Some races are long and don’t reflect fitness perfectly. Main events only happen once a year and it is not a useful or practical measure for day-to-day fitness assessment for training purposes.

Enter a road race
Once in a while it is useful to enter a road race.
Pros: A more predictable environment and course. Good indicator of overall cardiovascular fitness. Running a short road race can also be a good training session.
Cons: Performance in road races doesn’t always translate to trail running results (especially if your trail race is hilly and technical). There is also a risk of getting injured if your body is not accustomed to road running.

Short hill time trial (3-10min)
Instead of running a road race, you can choose a time-trial course, which could be a local hill or hilly stretch of road.
Pros: More controlled course and conditions. Hill/trail running specific. Short duration time-trial performance tests are reliable measure of performance.
Cons: Less predictive power for longer trail events.

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Laboratory testing. 
Trail running may differ to road running, but it is still running! Laboratory testing is sophisticated way to look at major physiological and biomechanical elements of running performance, such as maximal oxygen consumption, lactate thresholds, running economy and metabolic efficiency etc.

Pros: Objective assessment of physical capacity. Controlled environment. Easily reproducible protocols.
Cons: Expensive. It can be useful to assess fitness (VO2maxand lactate thresholds) but it doesn’t necessarily correlate well with trail running performance. Not every trail runner is proficient runner on the treadmill.


Personal experience

As a scientist and ultra-distance runner, I use rather subjective ways to assess my progress. Whilst I regularly enter road races and have my fitness tested in the lab (it’s part of my day job - lucky me!), I pay attention to several things to understand the state of my fitness.

When regular long road and trail runs feel easy
Do I find regular 10, 20 or 30km (road and trail) runs easy? At the start of the season even 20km can feel a bit awkward. I usually feel pretty happy with my form when a 30km run becomes “a routine” run rather than long run, and ‘long run’ status is elevated to 40km+ runs or runs longer than 4 hours.

How vertical ascent feels in my legs
Feeling the effect of sessions with 1km, 2km or more of vertical ascent in my legs. I am slowly building my strength to feel good with 2500m+ vertical ascent runs, which is a good indication of fitness necessary for a mountainous trail race.

I have several locations that serve as my vertical ascent ‘testing lab’, that range from 200 to 1000m of continuous vertical ascent. If I can run a VK (vertical kilometre) non-stop it gives me a good idea if my uphill running fitness has improved. If I am struggling with that, I complement my training with more strength and conditioning exercises, as well as short and medium uphill intervals, to build necessary strength. My 12-week training plan provides a systematic approach to uphill training and includes hill and strength sessions. The plan is delivered through Training Peaks: "Uphill strength for trail runners: 12-week training program".

Observing my running technique and finding the edges of my limits
I observe my body during 2+ hour runs and see how long I can maintain good running technique. Ideally, a 4-hour run should not affect running technique that much. If it is a road run, I compare how the second half of my run (pace-wise) is different from the first one. Also, it’s sometimes good to push yourself in the final 5km of your 20km or even 30km run and see if you’ve still got reserves. Be careful not to use all your reserves in training sessions, you do not want to reach an excessive fatigue level. You want just the right amount of stress so your body can recover quickly.

Running short road races
A 5K time trail is a good (and pretty objective) tool I use to assess my fitness. It’s also an ideal way to compare against any previous efforts and a 5km performance is a good indicator of cardiovascular fitness. If I can run sub-16 min for a 5km, I am usually happy with that part of my fitness and can move to training specifically for trails.

And to extend this assessment beyond just running for me it is important:

⁃      How I feel the day after a long run. I usually ask myself whether I would be able to repeat yesterday’s session again today. I pay attention to muscle soreness and any pains and niggles. If you feel extremely sore after a session with 1000m ascent and descent, it means that your body is still not conditioned properly to step up or even race (if you are training for an ultra in particular).

⁃      I make a mental note of how long I can run without taking energy (i.e. gels, fruit or carbohydrate containing drinks). This gives me a good indication of how efficient my fat burning is. Fitter athletes usually burn more fat-based fuels than unfit.

⁃      I also pay attention to how I tolerate heat. Acclimatising to hot environments is one of the key success elements for summer races.

VK Treadmill Challenge


Surprisingly, in over 20 years of running, I have never attempted serious hill workouts on the treadmill. In a bid to avoid running in torrential rain one afternoon, I ran a VK (1000 metres of vertical ascent) on the dreadmill (...treadmill). Since the treadmill stops automatically after 60 minutes, I decided that a one-hour vertical kilometre attempt would be a fun challenge. 

After the first attempt, I was keen to explore the infinite, looping landscape of the treadmill further and completed another three VK sessions. I have outlined each of the workouts (also in a printable version) so you can try them too. I recommend printing a copy or keeping your phone handy on the treadmill so you don’t have to memorise the exact structure of the workout. Remember to maintain good form throughout: these are tough sessions, so it is better to shorten them, or adjust the incline to suit your current fitness.

What did I learn from my VK Treadmill Challenge?

⁃     Firstly, treadmill workouts can be a good substitute for hill training, especially if the focus of your workout is to improve uphill running technique. My previous journal post Running Technique (2): making hills easy discusses some of these techniques. 

⁃     A recent study suggests that classic endurance variables like VO2max and running economy on a +0% slope is not a strong predictor of short trail running (20-30km) performance, however, adding more trail specific variable, like running economy on a +10% slope, allows good characterisation of trail running performance. If that is the case, I am ready to chase that efficiency! Find the study here:

⁃     Breaking your workout into stages or setting a protocol of intervals makes it less of a mental challenge.

⁃     It is the quickest and most accessible way to experience a true vertical kilometre (not a single step downhill) if you don’t live by the mountains. Even in hilly Auckland, you cannot find pure uphill stretches that climb 1000 metres. 

⁃     Finally, I learned to appreciate that 15% incline on the treadmill is actually a big deal when you are out on the trails. A one-hour uphill effort can earn you spectacular views – unfortunately this is not the case when you are in the gym!

Workout 1: VO2Max Uphill Intervals

Eight 4-minute intervals at 15% incline, with 1-minute recovery between each interval at 3-5% incline.

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
10min 1% incline 10km/h

Main set
Note: @hard means at a pace that you find challenging, but sustainable for the length of the interval. The pace can change between intervals. RI – is a recovery interval.

8 x (4min @hard (15% incline at 7 to 10km.h) + 1min RI @easy (3-5% incline at 8km.h))
[with a longer 3 min recovery break halfway through the intervals]

Cool down
3min 1% incline 10km/h

Download printable version here

Workout 2: Pyramid threshold session

Intervals in this workout will become gradually longer, but not recovery interval. 

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline

Main Set
Note: @hard means at a pace that you find challenging, but sustainable for the length of the interval. The pace can change between intervals. RI – is a recovery interval.

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4-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
6-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
8-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
10-min 15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
8-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
6-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
4-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy

Cool down
5min 1% incline 10km/h

46min at threshold pace

Download printable version here

Workout 3: Threshold + Power session

This workout is split into three stages where I ran three 10-minute sets at varying inclines, ending each set with three 30 second bursts at 15% incline. Notice how the 30 second sets ratchet in speed. 

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline

Main set (progressive structure)
Stage I. 
10min 8% incline ~10km.h (sub-threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 10-11-12 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h 

Stage II. 
10min 10% incline ~10km.h (threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 11-12-13 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h

Stage III. 
10min 10% incline ~10km.h (threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 12-13-14 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h

Cool down
2min @easy pace at 1% 8km.h

Download printable version here

Workout 4: Threshold + VO2maxsession

This workout is in two stages, with three longer intervals in the first stage, and 6 shorter intervals in the second stage.

Heart Rate Analysis: Workout 4

Heart Rate Analysis: Workout 4

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline 

Main set (progressive structure)
Stage I. 
3 x 8min 15% incline 8-10km.h + 2 min RI (6% 7 km.h)
[1 set: moderately-hard pace; 2 set: hard pace; 3 set: really hard pace] - see heart rate analysis

Stage II. 
6 x (2.5min 15% incline @threshold + 1min 15% incline @VO2max + 1.5min RI 6% incline 7 km.h)

Cool down
2min @easy pace at 1% 10km.h

Download printable version here