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Skyrunning: The Ultimate Running Challenge?

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Presenting runners with a mental and physical challenge unlike any other, but also rewarding them with spectacular scenery and an unparalleled sense of accomplishment, skyrunning is viewed by many as the ultimate running challenge.

What is skyrunning?

But what exactly is skyrunning? The term “skyrunning”, originally coined by Italian mountaineer, Marino Giacometti, refers to the setting in which the sport takes place, i.e. where the earth meets the sky. The sport is formally defined as “mountain running up to or exceeding [an altitude of] 2,000 m where the minimum average incline is 6% over the total distance and must include sections of 30%”. The climbing difficulty must furthermore, by definition, also not exceed II° grade.

NK Skyrunning 2017 Zout Fotografie-22” by NKBV. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Within the limits of this definition, skyrunning is divided into the following three subdisciplines:

  • Sky runs, which comprise races measuring 20 to 49 km, with at least 1,300 m positive vertical climb
  • Ultra-distance events, comprising runs measuring 50 to 99 km, with 3,200 m minimum vertical climb or a maximum finish time of under 16 hours
  • Vertical runs, which measure 5 km or less, with a minimum average incline of 20% and some sections over 33%

The sport is currently governed by the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF).

Skyrunning competitions

In terms of competition, skyrunning races generally take place under the flag of the following circuits, championships and series, as defined by the ISF:

  • National Championships
  • Skyrunning Continental Championships
  • Skyrunning World Championships
  • Youth Skyrunning World Championships
  • Skygames
  • The Skyrunner® World Series
  • The Skyrunner® National Series
  • The Vertical Kilometer® World Circuit
  • The Vertical World Circuit
  • Other circuits
NK Skyrunning 2017 Zout Fotografie-37” by NKBV. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

And with 200+ races currently being presented in 18 countries worldwide, and a support base of 50,000+ athletes from more than 65 nations, it’s safe to say that skyrunning is here to stay.

Why skyrunning?

But why would anyone in their right mind willingly put themselves through this kind of torture, you ask? For many skyrunners, including multiple ultra-series champion, Emelie Forsberg, it has a lot to do with the feeling of freedom experienced while running in the mountains. But it also has to do with pushing personal boundaries. For Forsberg, skyrunning is, to a large extent, about pushing her own mental limits. “It’s a lot about the mind and how to get over [mental] barriers”, the Swedish skyrunner says.

NK Skyrunning 2017 Zout Fotografie-2” by NKBV. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Tips for getting started

So do you think you have what it takes to be a skyrunner? Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Invest in proper gear

Skyrunning is not the place to skimp on quality gear. A good place to start would be investing in a pair of specialist trail running shoes. According to Norwegian skyrunner, Eirik Haugsnes, a well-fitting pair of trail running shoes with a sticky grip is a must. Also be on the lookout for shoes with an outsole that can handle any terrain, from dry, rocky slopes, to wet stones, deep mud and technical forest ground. Haugsnes’ recommendation? The X-Talon shoe by inov-8.

A second piece of essential skyrunning gear, is a light backpack that is able to hold water, a windproof jacket, food, a rescue blanket, gloves, a hat and your phone.

Lastly, many skyrunners also prefer running with a set of hiking poles. While not compulsory, these may help you conserve energy on long ascents.

2. Brush up on your navigation skills

Since skyrunning routes are not marked, you will need to locate a number of checkpoints with the aid of nothing but a map and compass. So if your navigation skills are rusty, sign up for an online navigation course or head to your nearest orienteering club for help. And, once you have the basics down, elite ultra-distance runner, Tom Evans, says that it’s just a matter of having confidence in your skills. “Once you’ve learnt the basics, it’s simply a case of trusting your map and compass”, he says.

3. Head for the hills

If you’re based in a big city, training for a mountain race can be tricky. Evens recommends spending a few weekends away in an environment similar to that of your goal event, or, if that’s not possible, to find the biggest, steepest hills in your areas and make them your own.

NK Skyrunning 2017” by NKBV. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
4. Find a beginner-friendly race to start off with

Whilst still challenging, the Scafell Sky Race in the Lake District of the UK is, according to Evans, not as extreme as many others. “It’s a great starting point with some amazing views, technical trails and plenty of runnable sections”, he adds.

5. Do your homework

For a wealth of motivation and tips, look no further than YouTube for some inspirational footage of skyrunning legend, Kilian Jornet, in action. Or get your hands on a copy of Ian Corless’ book, Running Beyond,  for details on some of the most incredible races out there.

Push your limits

So if you’re keen to push your limits and find out what you’re really made of, give skyrunning a go. It’s sure to leave you humbled and amazed by what your body and mind is actually capable of.



Featured Image Source: NK Skyrunning 2017 Zout Fotografie-45” by NKBV, licensed under CC BY 2.0.


  1. Competitor.com Staff, Video: The art of skyrunning, Online video
  2. Competitor.com Staff, Video: CBS takes a closer look at skyrunning, Online video
  3. Lisa Jhung, What is mountain running?, Online publication
  4. International Skyrunning Federation Staff, International Skyrunning Federation, Website
  5. Howard Calvert, Go above the clouds with our beginner’s guide to skyrunning, Online publication

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