What is Skyrunning?

people running at a high altitude

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For those who love to run and spend time in the mountains, there is a relatively new sport called skyrunning. Skyrunning is an emerging running trend that essentially involves running up and down mountains.

But, this sport is not for the faint of heart. The terrain is steep and challenging, and requires the ability to run at a higher altitude where the amount of oxygen getting to the muscles decreases. Here is what you need to know about skyrunning including why people participate and how they benefit.

What Is Skyrunning?

Skyrunning is a sport created by Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti in 1992. The idea that inspired skyrunning was to be able to go from a town to the highest mountain peak in the least amount of time.

Skyrunning combines running up and down mountains and on uneven, steep terrain at a high elevation. The International Skyrunning Federation, which also has a skyrunning organization in the U.S., defines skyrunning as running above 2,000 meters altitude. What's more, there's an incline of more than 30% and the climbing altitude does not exceed a “II° grade.”

Richard Bolt, American Trail Running Association

Skyrunning terrain may be so steep that even the fittest runners have to walk or scramble up a slope using their hands and feet,

— Richard Bolt, American Trail Running Association

“In practice—especially in the United States—skyrunning very often takes place below 2,000 meters but is very technical mountain running, sometimes even off trail,” explains Richard Bolt, director of marketing, American Trail Running Association.  “Skyrunning terrain may be so steep that even the fittest runners have to walk or scramble up a slope using their hands and feet.” 

Because skyrunning is a relatively new sport, it’s often confused with other types of running, such as trail running, ultra running, or mountain running. Bolt explains that there is overlap between these different types of running, though each style has technical definitions and international governing bodies.

“Skyrunning is by far the least understood by U.S. off-road runners,” he says.

Randy Accetta, PhD, director of coaching education, Road Runners Club of America, adds that there are several things that set skyrunning apart. These include the technical terrain and the high altitude.

"[Runners] have to be very careful not to go too fast too early or [they] won’t be able to recover," says Dr. Accetta.

Types of Skyrunning

There are different categories of skyrunning races that determine the elevation, incline, distance, and length of the race. Because there are official races held across the globe, there are specific rules for each type of race that are determined by the International Skyrunning Federation.

“The federation is the only governing body of the sport which counts 49 member countries and approximately 100,000 participants in official races annually,” explains Lauri van Houten, co-founder of skyrunning and communication and marketing director for the International Skyrunning Federation

There are eight different types of races, including some that are done in the snow. Here are some of the skyrunning races and what they entail. 

Sky

A sky race is 20 kilometers to 49 kilometers in length and there must be a minimum vertical climb of 1,200 meters. If a race goes over 4,000 meters in altitude, the distance must be 10 kilometers or longer.

SkyUltra

The race is 50 kilometers to 99 kilometers long and either has a vertical climb of 3,000 meters or the race must be completed in under 16 hours.

“The time limit is based on our scientific research, as 16 hours is when sleep deprivation kicks in and is not considered a safe or healthy way to run, [such as] through the night as in many trail running races,” explains van Houten.

Vertical

As the name implies, these races are uphill with at least a 1,000 meter vertical climb over uneven terrain. The incline must average a minimum of 20% with 5% of the entire distance having to be over 33%. The race is never longer than 5 kilometers. 

Skyspeed

These are races that have a vertical climb of 100 meters or more. The incline for a skyspeed race is a minimum of 33%.

Skysnow

According to van Houten, the skysnow is the newest addition to skyrunning and requires special footwear for running on ice and snow known as micro-crampons. Experts in skyrunning anticipate this version to gain popularity quickly.

“[Skysnow] is a winter discipline running on snow-covered courses with micro-crampons [and is] destined to attract a lot of runners,” she says. 

Reasons People Participate in Skyrunning

Just like with any sport, people participate in skyrunning for a myriad of reasons. Here are different ways people are motivated to skyrun.

Looking for a Challenge

People like pushing themselves and their bodies. Skyrunning offers runners an opportunity to challenge themselves mentally and physically.

Lauri van Houten, International Skyrunning Foundation

Apart from running on Mars, there’s nothing more challenging [than skyrunning]. It’s cool. It’s sexy.

— Lauri van Houten, International Skyrunning Foundation

“After road running, then trail running, skyrunning is the next level and young people want that," says van Houten. "Apart from running on Mars, there’s nothing more challenging [then skyrunning]. It’s cool. It’s sexy.”

Experiencing High Altitude Running

Doing any activity at a higher altitude isn’t easy because there is less oxygen in the air. Choosing to run at high altitude is a test and challenge of what a runner is capable of.

“Skyrunning teaches runners how to manage running at high altitude on technical terrain, in all conditions, to run 'fast and light,'" explains van Houten.

Increasing Fitness Levels

Runners who want to take their fitness levels up a notch by running in a challenging environment often look to skyrunning as an option. Additionally, running at a higher altitude challenges the body in ways runners may not experience on flatter terrain.

“Runners who want to test their fitness at high elevations where the air is thin and the views are epic [and] to take part in a technical challenge in the mountains,” says Bolt. 

Looking for Competition

The amount of people who can participate in a skyrunning race is limited. Those who compete or participate in this sport are usually those at the top of their game. 

“The competition is also tough as the numbers are capped and most of the runners have a good experience in iconic races,” says van Houten. 

Expending More Calories

Some people may be enticed by the health benefits of expending more energy. From a health point of view, van Houten says that data from their organization's research indicates that running uphill consumes 10 times more calories than flat terrain.

Safety and Health Considerations

When considering taking up a new style of running, especially skyrunning, there are some safety and health concerns to consider. Here is what you need to know.

Know Your Physical Ability

Running at higher altitudes can be challenging on the body and requires some time for the body to acclimate. Knowing what you're capable of is important to avoid putting yourself in a situation that could be dangerous.

Additionally, it may be beneficial to talk to a healthcare provider about your goals. They can let you know if this type of activity is right for you given your medical history and your fitness level.

Know your fitness level and be able to communicate that to whomever is taking you running in the mountains,” says Bolt.

You also need to consider the health of your joints and your overall flexibility. Likewise, if you have knee concerns, you may have to take extra precautions and listen to the advice of a medical professional.

“Any biomechanical knee and ankle or postural problems should be verified together with a heart rate test as in any other endurance sport,” explains van Houten. 

Bring and Wear the Right Gear

Wearing the right clothing and shoes is essential when you go skyrunning. Dressing for the weather and the terrain makes a big difference in your experience, says Dr. Accetta. You also will need appropriate layers of clothing and hydration devices.

“The correct gear is indispensable, starting with shoes,” says van Houten. “The sole must have a good grip on wet rocks—stability and cushioning are [also] necessary. Other accessories include technical poles, a headband, [and] gloves for scrambling.”

Keep in mind, the weather in the mountains can change suddenly. Dress appropriately and be prepared for all types of weather, such as rain, snow, or intense wind.

“Obviously apparel must be technical, (no cotton T-shirts), and a feather-weight windproof jacket should be carried for protection from wind and rain, especially on the downhill,” explains van Houten. 

Take Precautions

When you go into the wilderness, it’s always a good idea to go with someone else or in a group as a safety measure. If anything were to happen, such as an injury, someone else can provide aid or call for help.

“Skyrunning should never be done alone by first-timers,” says Bolt. “Find someone with experience willing to take you out for a run in the mountains first.”

It's also important to be alert and aware of your environment not just because you could encounter wildlife, but also because you have to be aware of the ever-changing terrain.

“When mountain running and wilderness running, you always have to remember that you are just one of the animals out in nature," says Dr. Accetta. "Keep a sharp eye, don’t wear headphones, and be mindful of your surroundings. [For me,] I would be more worried about mismanaging the technical trails than I would be about wildlife.”

A Word From Verywell

Skyrunning is a relatively new sport that fuses running with the challenge of navigating up and down mountains on uneven and challenging terrain. It also is a physically demanding activity and requires being in good physical shape with a high fitness level.

As the governing body for the sport, the International Skyrunning Federation determines the requirements for each style of race. If you are interested in learning more about skyrunning, or to find races to participate in, contact the federation. You also can talk to a running coach about how to train for and get involved in skyrunning.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is skyrunning good for you?

    Skyrunning is a sport that requires a lot of physical exertion and running in difficult conditions. Physical activity is good for you as long as you don’t overexert yourself and respect and know your body's physical limits. Talk to a healthcare provider to determine if skyrunning is the right sport for you. They can assess your medical history and fitness level and help you make a decision that is right for you.

  • How do you train for a skyrunning race?

    Training for a skyrunning race is similar to training for other running activities. According to some running coaches, training to skyrun requires running more miles, doing strength training, and working on speed. You also need to get acclimated to running at higher altitudes on uneven terrain.

    Practicing running uphill and downhill, along with being able to manage even when you’re tired and fatigued should be part of your training. You also should prepare for the higher altitudes and oxygen debt.

  • How do you get started with skyrunning?

    Because skyrunning takes place in the mountains, you’ll need to find an area with steep terrain and trails. You can check in your area if there are skyrunner groups or other skyrunners. There also are races that are open to both professional and amateur runners to participate in. Check with a running coach, a runner's group, or the International Skyrunning Federation for more information.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. International Skyrunning Federation. About.

  4. International Skyrunning Federation. Rules.