Being based in Chamonix surrounded by the peaks of the Alps seems an idyllic set-up for any mountain-loving runner. However, this life doesn’t come without its huge challenges, as TrainAsONE athlete Ben Riddell tells us.
Salford Harrier Riddell moved to the French resort around two and a half years ago. Close to the Swiss border, he and his girlfriend, GB international mountain runner Sarah Tunstall, are not short of lung-bursting ascents which provide the perfect training effect together with similarly breathtaking views. A plethora of nearby races offer great competition during the summer, when the weather gives rise to few complaints.
However when the ground is covered in snow and the temperature plummets to minus 17 as it did last winter, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the move was such a good idea.
“They clear the roads really quickly but you can’t run above the valley,” said Riddell of the prospect of running in winter. “December to March last year and this year I was doing my training on the treadmill.
“It is a tough place to run. Once you get running, anything between minus 10 and zero is fine. It’s just once it goes below that. You’re just in pain.”
“But I’ve been training on the treadmill and it seems to be all right and it’s nice training in shorts and t-shirts when it’s minus 10 outside.”
He said: “I’ve not broken eight minutes for the mile in the last 12 weeks. Most of my training is running uphill for 80 minutes.”
But he found on a recent trip back to the UK to run the Salford Sizzler 5km that the mountain route could prove to be a recipe for short-distance success too. He clocked 15:09 – just three seconds outside his PB.
“Just running uphill and occasional flat trails I ran very close to my 5km PB and I’m thinking now I could probably run under 8:20 [for 3000m],” he said, crediting a different approach to speedwork. “I’ve noticed with the French and the Swiss guys, they don’t do sessions all year round. The mountain runners out here will do the sessions from March until mid-May and then from then race every week.
“I think in the UK I’ll really overdid it with the sessions, trying to cram in a session midweek between two races and I just think I was constantly tired. I did take recovery for granted, for sure. Cutting down the sessions has naturally I think let the speed come back a bit.
“Speed is definitely important to me, but I just don’t practise it that much any more. The main thing I do is just strides at the end of a couple of runs a week. Even though you’re running uphill and at outside 10-minute miling, I’m probably also pushing harder now on some of my steady runs on the hills than I would in a intervals session.”
Riddell says the treadmill running in the winter also helped in this regard before he went back home to clock 31:05 in the Trafford 10km. He would do tempo sessions and ramp up the speed to 19km/hr (about 5:05 miling) for up to 40 minutes – although he added: “My legs were so sore. Running on concrete after not being on it for about three months was weird.”
Aside from what some may consider negatives, these are surely outweighed by the positives of training in the Alps. Riddell said of the advantages. “It’s the uninterrupted running. You can go running for hours and you’re not stopping crossing roads. From my door it’s trails.
“The weather’s good for eight months of the year. It’s just bad for four.” [Unless you’re into your ski mountaineering or XC ski – Ed.]
Riddell, who describes himself as better suited to the roads than the ascents, is quick to dispel the theory that mountain running offers as an easy GB vest.
“When you move out here you soon realise that it’s definitely not the case,” he said, before referring to the GB team that went to Kamnik, Slovenia, in the Alps in July for the European Mountain Running Championships, where Tunstall picked up individual silver and team gold. “The [British] team that were out here, I’m pretty sure most of them could break 30 minutes for 10km, but it’s not just about that speed, but experience in the mountains too”.
“You get guys turning up to the trials sometimes who might have just run 29:40 for 10km and think, ‘I’m fitter than everyone else in the race so I’ll make the team,’ and they don’t because it does come down to efficiency running uphill. If your running style isn’t built for running uphill, you might lead the race til halfway and then you’ll get a guy who’s running 33 for 10km passing you. If it’s under 8% elevation you probably can get away with it, but when it goes up to 20-25% it becomes difficult.” This is something Ben has been working on out in Chamonix.
Riddell’s main goal for the year is the Sierre-Zinal this weekend and he’ll be aiming for at least a 34 second improvement on last year’s 3:00:33, but we know he’ll go a whole lot faster than that now he’s in TrainAsONE kit.
Article written by Paul Halford.