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April 2017
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High altitude running, or skyrunning, is definitely one of the most fascinating yet hardest sports: the natural fatigue of long distance races, even as long as the marathon, is mixed with altitude, extreme ups and downs, adverse climatic conditions and dangerous mountain tops, which really pushes the athletes’ bodies and minds to the test, even the most prepared ones.

A bit of history...  

Skyrunning has very old origins: the Similaun man, who was found in a glacier after 5,000 years with his straw and goat skin coat and hay-stuffed shoes, is considered to be one of the first skyrunners in the world. Many years after, in 1519, the imprint of a Spanish soldier, who had climbed to the then highest summit ever reached, was documented. This was the peak of the Popcateptl volcano in Mexico which is 5,441 metres high. In more recent times, in 1864, Federick Morshead established the world record when he ran from Chamonix to Mont Blanc and back in 16.5 hours.

The first, official high altitude race, which was just under 4,000m and was carried out in 1933, but not on foot; on skis: the famous Mezzalama Trophy for alpine skiing. There are estimated to be around 10,000 people who have taken part in competitions in altitudes over than 4,000m.

A look at the races

Skyrunning competitions are separated into different disciplines:

  • the SkyMarathon, which is the same distance as a classic marathon but completed at an altitude of 4,000m;
  • the SkyRace, which is sometimes longer or shorter than a classic marathon but run at an altitude of 3,000m;
  • the Vertical Kilometer, which, as is deducible from its name, includes a slope which is 1,000m long, is run at various altitudes and the distance varies from 3-5km, depending on the terrain. This is probably the easiest and most approachable discipline and it gives beginners an insight in to what skyrunning is.

The first Skyrunning world championship happened in 1998 in Cervinia, Italy, with participants coming from 16 different countries. In 2000, the first Olympic high altitude races, the SkyGames®, were also held at the foot of the Cervinia area and athletes from 18 countries were faced with 5 different disciplines: the SkyBike¸ the Vertical Kilometer, the SkySki, the SkyRace (from Zermatt in Switzerland to Cervinia) and the SkyMarathon.

Running on skis

During races in the mountains, you do not only run but also use skis (when going up hill naturally) as a sort of dedication to alpine skiing. As mentioned, the most famous competition is the Mezzalama Trophy and the run, which is 57km long and 4,000m up, snakes down the huge Monte Rosa glaciers. In 2001, more than 500 athletes took part in this race.

A bit about physiology

Skyrunners are definitely the most studied athletes in the world. Amongst the main results from such research, which were announced at a convention in the Aosta Valley in February 2000, it is possible to quote the following:

  • The average speed, with respect to sea level, reduces by 72% at 4,200m and by 62% at 5,2000m;
  • The record up hill speed in the Vertical Kilometer is 1.657 mph;
  • The record down hill speed in the SkyMarathon is 3.410 mph;
  • The record up hill speed in the SkyMarathon is 1.248 mph;
  • No problems were found amongst the athletes studied which related to altitude sickness;
  • Before this event became popular, it was believed that high altitude training was impossible;
  • The best skyrunners run 30,000m a month, up hill for their training;
  • Theoretically, it is possible to run up to 7,000m above sea level.


Skyrunning, because of its nature, requires specific equipment like technical, light, breathable, elastic and thermal products so as to protect the body and not slow down the speed of the run. The following table lists the ‘typical equipment’ needed and the material it is made from.

Item Material
Band across front/hat Band made of Coolmax and Windstopper
Cycling vest or long sleeved top Bi-elastic with Lycra, Polartec
Jacket or gilet Microfibre, Windstopper, Polartec
Leggings or trousers Leggings lycra, microfibre
Socks Coolmax/cotton without seams
Shoes Anti-slip shoes, mixed matierals, like Vibram

Wind-proof gloves, glasses, like cycling glasses, carbon fibre ski poles, camel bag or flask


In conclusion, skyrunning is for a chosen few, or is it? Could it become more common? How can it be developed........?


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