Unless you do all your running in Florida, you probably encounter the occasional hill. How should you approach the hill? Should you modify your technique? Does it depend on the surface? Are there other important variables? Let’s find out.
The single biggest mistake people make when running uphill is an elongated stride. People take steps that are too big. The longer the step you take, the more energy you’ll expend over that distance. It’s more efficient to take two shorter steps instead of one longer step. You can experiment with this idea by running up a flight of stairs. Hit each step on the first trip up. Then try taking two steps at a time.Then try three. Which condition was the easiest?
Posture shouldn’t change from your flat-ground running gait. There’s no need to lean forward or lean back. In fact, doing either will upset your balance and increase the likelihood of falling. Keep your back straight and your head up. Resist the urge to bend at the waist as this stresses the lower back.
I power hike steep hills in training and all hills in long races. It’s more efficient than running. The power hike is a bit of a misnomer, because you’re not really “powering” up the hill. The movements require very little muscle activation. Take very short (3-8″) steps. When your foot is planted on the ground, use your glutes to lift your body up and forward over your planted foot. This motion can be assisted by straightening your knee. I like to visualize my knee moving backward to move from the bent to the straight position.
Most people seem to use their quads to power hike, which causes premature fatigue. It’s common to hear runners complain of “trashed quads.” You know you’re doing it right if you can climb a hill of any length without experiencing excessive muscle soreness or fatigue.
If the hill isn’t especially steep or you’re running a shorter distance, you can maintain a running gait when climbing. Like power hiking, posture doesn’t change. I don’t change other elements of gait except stride length and cadence. Like power hiking, I’ll take shorter, faster steps instead of longer, slower steps. The same efficiency concept applies.
The muscle activation pattern is close to the same, too. I don’t rely on my quads to “power” up the hill. Instead, I use my glutes to lift my body up and forward. It’s a far more resilient muscle group.
This lesson applies mostly to trails. When the trail gets too steep, your foot can’t dorsiflex (pulling your foot up toward your shin)enough to keep your heel on the ground (see the first pic). I always look for the flattest grades to place my feet whether I’m running or power hiking. I’ll use debris like sticks, roots, and rocks as “steps.” The purpose is to limit the dorsiflexion of the foot (see second pic). If your foot dorsiflexes too much, it strains your calf muscles and Achilles tendon.
I also try to get as much of my foot on the ground as possible for maximum traction. Slipping down the hill wastes energy. If your foot begins to slip, quickly place your other foot on the ground and shift the weight to that foot.
Picking Your Line
Like foot placement, picking your line is more of a trail running issue. Many runners just run or hike up hills with little regard for the “line” or route they choose. Instead of just picking a random path, use the terrain to your advantage. I borrowed this technique from Jesse Scott. Use the same “short step” technique I discussed above and pick out a line that requires the shortest steps. In other words, avoid a line that requires you to take large steps, especially if you’re stepping on or over a large rock, root, or log.
The best way to master going uphill is to practice frequently. I spent several months training with a heart rate monitor to gauge my technique. I’d climb a hill at a specific pace and measure my average heart rate. Then I’d try a slightly different technique and measure that average heart rate. I’d compare the techniques and use the one that was most efficient. I would then test that technique on some really long mountain climbs (3-6 miles). If you don’t live near mountains, a treadmill set on 12-15% grade will work. If I felt any muscle fatigue, I practiced keeping those muscles relaxed.
Using this methodology, I was able to fine-tune my technique to the point where I can climb pretty much any hill with ease. I’s been a major reason I’ve been able to run 100 milers on relatively low training mileage.
What about you? What uphill techniques to you employ? Have you tried any of mine? If not, give them a shot and report back.