What Is Skyrunning? A Guide For Mountain Trail Runners

Everything you need to know about Skyrunning, including the different types of mountain skyraces, and what shoes you should wear for your next Skyrace.


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We mention the concept of ‘Skyrunning’ often in our trail running shoe reviews and running 101 guides, for a few reasons – Skyrunning races are some of my favorite types of trail running races, yes – but also this type of running warrants a running shoe that can handle what’s involved in such a thrilling run – which is a lot.

But what actually is Skyrunning, why is it getting so popular among trail runners and mountain enthusiasts, and how do you find new Skyrunning races to take on? I’m sharing all in this post.

Skyrunning is a thrilling way to run trails

What is Skyrunning and When Did It Start?

Imagine storming up a mountain where the air is thin, the inclines are steep, and the views are nothing short of breathtaking – hold that image…

Skyrunning is a genre of mountain-based trail running that combines the challenges of high-altitude running with the thrill of mountain climbing. Originating in the early 1990s, the concept of skyrunning was birthed by Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti along with his climbing buddies. They initially set their adventurous footprints on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Alps, staging races that tested the limits of human endurance, agility, and speed in high altitudes.

By 1993, skyrunning sprinted from a niche mountaineering competition to a global phenomenon, thanks to sponsorship from the Fila sportswear brand. This newfound support helped skyrunning lace up its boots to trek across various mountain ranges—from the Alps to the Himalayas, and even further to Mount Kenya and the Mexican volcanoes.

Today, officially-termed skyrunning races affiliated with the International Skyrunning Federation attract around 50,000 participants from 65 countries, showcasing a robust growth in its appeal and competitiveness.

How Do Skyrunning Races Differ From Other Types of Trail Running Races?

Skyrunning is essentially a category of mountain trail running (in the same way ultra running, and vertical kilometer races are) where the races take place at elevations above 2,000 meters, where the air is a little thinner and the paths are usually steep.

A typical skyrunning event includes a dizzying incline of at least 6% overall, with segments where the slope hits a thigh-burning 30% or more. These races are just as much about endurance as they are about climbing power and skill, where participants use poles, crampons, and even their hands to scramble up the terrain.

Skyrunning race start in Zermatt - What is Skyrunning

In essence, the typical Skyrunning ‘SkyRace’, and what I am usually talking about when I use the term ‘skyrunning’, is a mountain running race of between 20 and 49km in distance, that starts at a mountain village or basecamp, climbs at least 1,200 meters and then returns or circles back down the slopes to the finish line.

So, a classic skyrace would spend around half the time with you mostly ascending, and the second half mostly descending.

Some ‘official’ race distances and categories as defined by the International Skyrunning Federation include:

  • Vertical Kilometer races, which are straight-up sprints to ascend 1,000 meters as quickly as possible
  • The SkyRace format I mentioned above, and
  • Ultra SkyMarathons, which are longer races with more than 50km in distance and more than 3,000 meters of vertical climbing.

Examples of Popular Skyrunning Races

The Skyrunner World Series showcases the pinnacle of skyrunning with events that attract elite athletes and daring amateurs alike. Yes, like me… and probably you, if not already, then soon because I bet you’re already curious and possibly hooked on the idea of getting into this fun and crazy sport!

The annual world cup began in 2004 and has since become the standard for excellence in the sport. The series features races like the Transvulcania Ultramarathon in the Canary Islands, the Ultra Pirineu in Spain, and, one of my favorites that I’ve already run three times, The Matterhorn Ultraks! All of these races offer something different, but they have a lot in common, namely breathtaking landscapes paired with heart-stopping climbs.

For those who prefer a vertical challenge, the VK Open Championships spotlight the Vertical Kilometer discipline. Here, runners face a pure ascent, pushing their speed and stamina to the limit. These races are not only a test of physical ability but also a showcase of strategic pacing and mental toughness.

There are, of course, other mountain running races that are not necessarily part of the ‘official’ Skyrunning race series, but offer similar distances, climbs and challenges, so it’s worth keeping that in mind as you search around your local trail running scene for your next fun challenging race – there’s probably one not too far from you that fits the bill.

What Makes a Good Running Shoe for Skyrunning?

Given the extreme demands of skyrunning, choosing the right footwear is more than a matter of comfort—it’s about safety and performance. A good skyrunning shoe grips like a hungry gecko on rocky surfaces, offers some level of cushioning to absorb the relentless impact during descents, is responsive enough to react to the trails and a modestly low stack height to make you feel connected to the ground below, and of course provides stability to navigate through steep, uneven terrains.

It should be lightweight to avoid dragging you down as you ascend and sturdy enough to withstand the punishing conditions of high-altitude trails.

In selecting the best shoe for skyrunning, consider the specific type of race and its requirements. For vertical races, prioritize shoes with excellent traction and responsiveness, and minimal weight.

For longer distances, look for shoes that offer a balance between comfort, durability, and technical performance.

My Best Skyrunning Shoes roundup is a great place to start in finding the right pair for you and your race. If you’re still not sure which ones are best for you please just share what you need them for in the comments below and i’ll get you matched up to your next favorite pair of shoes in no time! 🙂 -Alastair

As the founder of Trail & Kale, and seasoned marathoner & ultrarunner, Alastair loves bringing our readers independent running shoe reviews and gear insights to help you run your best. Learn more about Trail & Kale here.


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