What Runners Need to Know About Reading Elevation Profiles

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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What Runners Need to Know About Reading Elevation Profiles

When choosing a goal race, runners take many things into consideration — and the elevation profile should be one of them. Of course the location, time of year and size of the field should be considered as well, but paying attention to the course map is crucial.

While elevation profiles can be a bit jarring, it is important to know not only what you are getting yourself into on race day, but also how to train. They should serve as a guide, but don’t let a hilly elevation profile deter you from running a race somewhere you’ve always wanted to explore on foot. Sometimes it looks worse than it is in reality.

“Do not overthink the course profiles and elevation charts — and don’t let them scare you,” encourages Dave Ames, owner and founder of Ame For It Run Coaching, a worldwide run-coaching service offering online and in-person training for runners of all abilities. “A runner can train and simulate pretty much any course nowadays. Do your research, ask questions and go to sites like MapMyRun, which will give great reviews from runners who have done the race previously.”

So, what exactly do you need to know about elevation profiles and how can you use the information to prepare for your next race? Two coaches shared with us how they guide their athletes when preparing for all different types of terrain.

HOW TO READ ELEVATION PROFILES

The most important part of reading an elevation profile is truly studying the chart. Elevation profiles can vary across races — it all depends on how the race director measures the course — so don’t psych yourself out upon first glance.

“Many runners absolutely freak out when they look at a course profile and they see a bunch of squiggly curvy lines going up and down for the total distance of the race,” says Ames. “What many fail to do is actually look at the elevation numbers on the left-hand side of the chart.”

Ames explains that what may look like a big climb on the chart may only actually be 50 feet of total elevation change. For context, that would be no more than you doing a hill rep during a repeat session in training.

“Not all elevation scales are created equal,” agrees Seth Kopf, owner and running coach at Kopf Running. “A course may look scary when looking at an elevation profile but in reality may only gain or lose a few feet in elevation.”

TIPS FOR TRAINING FOR A HILLY RACE

Of course not every hill is created equal, but there are a few simple guidelines runners can follow to prepare for a hilly course. Hill training can benefit runners no matter what course they are training for, as it works multiple muscle groups and can build up mental toughness.

“I really like races that have a bit of rolling hills in them,” shares Ames. “I truly feel this is the easiest way to keep the legs fresh during a half-marathon or marathon, for example. It’s simply muscle confusion.”

Ames advises you run easy mileage days on rolling terrain to prepare for races with an uphill challenge. He has his athletes train on hills year-round, so they learn to turn their legs over when they are tired.

“A race with a lot of uphills also has a lot of downhills, which means added pounding and stress on the body,” adds Kopf. “Critical components such as strength training, downhill running, cross-training and recovery should not only not be overlooked, but be highlighted in the training program.”

TIPS FOR TRAINING FOR A NET DOWNHILL

As Kopf points out, running downhill puts added stress on the body. That’s why, for a course that is a net downhill, he stresses that paying attention to your form is key. You want to run with a quicker cadence to reduce the amount of pounding that can happen if you are “heavy-footed.”

“It’s important to incorporate downhill running early on in your training,” Kopf adds. “Ideally, find a route that’s similar to the elevation profile of your goal race and train on the route as much as possible. This is most important toward the end of training when workouts become more race-specific.”

Ames is not a fan of net downhill races personally, as he feels they are a bit enhanced and not a true test of performance. “My main issue is how they beat up the quads … I’m a big believer that running downhill too much can cause injuries,” he notes.

Because of the pounding and potential for injury, it is important to focus not only on running, but on all of the other things that will help make you a well-rounded runner. Kopf specifically notes that you should be incorporating regular strength training into your schedule. Additionally, a dynamic warmup and active cooldown help safeguard against injury and, according to Kopf, help you maximize your miles on the roads and trail.

About the Author

Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta

Ashley is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the assistant editor at LAVA and her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journal, Women’s Running and more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.

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