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Uphill Running Technique

Posted by on Oct 12, 2012 | 19 Comments

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 Basics

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.

Power Hiking

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.

Foot Placement

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.




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  1. Matt
    October 15, 2012

    Agree on all the above, particularly posture. The thing that has most helped my uphill running is focusing on staying tall. If I’m struggling I make a point of getting my back straight and my head up and I usually notice an immediate improvement.

    The biggest problem I’ve had is convincing the ‘runner’ part of me that it’s OK to ‘walk’ the steeps!

  2. nils
    October 14, 2012

    Why stay upright when powerhiking steep terrain?
    Whats wrong with “hands on your knees, and face to the ground” style?

  3. Thinnmann
    October 13, 2012

    I disagree with your statement, “The single biggest mistake people make when running uphill is an elongated stride.” I think the biggest mistake people make running uphill is to attack the hill and try to be superior to others while going up. Those same people are invariably those that are slower and not able to relax on the descent. Every hill needs to be experienced in the context of the entire run, or even in the context of the entire previous few days and the next few days. Maintaining an even effort to get you through the distance (or the week) at the best pace possible is a skill that takes many years to mature.

    Otherwise I agree with your post 100%! Hope to see you out there sometime!

  4. Dave
    October 12, 2012

    I was at first confused by your 3-8″ stride length. I was imagining running like Tim Conway as the shuffling old man on the Carol Burnett Show. The people waiting behind me on a single-track trail would love that!

    Having seen the video, I see you mean 3-8″ from the downhill toe to the uphill heel (more like a 15-20″ stride length for me).

    I like to channel my inner Caballo Blanco and just keep it easy, light, and quick on the uphills.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2012

      I should have clarified that. Also, that measurement was intended for trails with a fairly steep grade. I’d take longer steps if I were on roads.

  5. BF in AZ
    October 12, 2012

    When running uphill I’ve found using very short fast steps, leaning from the ankles (keeping back straight), and focusing on lifting my feet rather than pushing off seems to make things easier. I also try to keep my body as relaxed as possible (imagining myself “floating” up the hill seems to help).

    • Jason
      October 12, 2012

      The relaxed body point is important, John. Thanks for bringing it up. Once I learned to relax on uphills, I got A LOT better at climbing.

  6. trissa
    October 12, 2012

    Saw the reason why on these mountain races that you have something covering the bottom of your feet. Wow. Tough terrain…Not sure if at this point, I could walk that barefoot.

    Also, reviewed the downhill technique, and YES! I have tried it on cement, though, going down on an incline! IT DOES WORK!!!

    Thank you for all you do!!

    • Jason
      October 12, 2012

      Trissa- yeah, that was a smoother section of the course, too. 🙂

      Glad the technique’s working. I’ll add it in my downhill post, which should be done by next week.

  7. jhuff
    October 12, 2012


    Could you clarify what you mean by “don’t lean”? You are implying that leaning does not occur. If so, I must disagree.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2012

      You shouldn’t be leaning any more than you would on flat ground. Since the amount of lean is a function of speed and individual preference, it’s impossible to say “lean X degrees.”

  8. Rob Y
    October 12, 2012

    Definitely shorter, quicker stride when going uphill. For non-ultra races I’d agree to try staying back on your heels as it’s more efficient; activates smaller muscle group (hamstrings). However, climbing a hill fast in a shorter race or nearing the finish I definitely get up on my toes quite a bit more as you can power up the hill significantly faster but at the expense of firing those quad muscles.

    Another reason to not lean forward at the waist/trunk is that it constricts your diaphragm making it harder to breath; less efficient. Stand tall while you climb!

    Look towards the least steep line when climbing, especially on switch-backing roads. Often it’s a longer route to stay on the outside curve of a steeply switch-backing turn but it’s also less steep making it easier to maintain pace and more efficient than just taking the shorter, steeper line. Again it depends on what the race distance is and where you are in the race.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2012

      Good tips, Rob. I use that same tactic in ultras, too.

  9. martin
    October 12, 2012

    Any chance of a similar article about downhill technique? I have been running in trail gloves for 6 months now and while I am very happy with my technique uphill and on the flat I always feel like I am landing too heavily when running down hill (shoes make a loud noise on impact too). The only solution seems to be to shorten my stride and increase my cadence to almost comical levels which feels and probably looks very weird!

    • Dave
      October 12, 2012

      When training in minimal shoes (trail gloves or less) I bend more at the knees, increase cadence and land flat footed, which actually means pointing my toes slightly down on impact (due to the hill). This helps me land lighter and save my poor knees.

      When racing however, I wear a thicker shoe (mix master) and bomb down as fast as my reflexes allow. The screams of other runners as they dive out of my way tell me when I’m doing it right.

    • Jason
      October 12, 2012

      Downhill is much more dependent on grade and surface, but yeah, I’ll be posting a downhill post in the next week or so.

    • Jack Harris
      October 14, 2012

      Let me preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert, and am in fact still actively working on making changes to my running form. That said, the downhill technique I’ve found most effective is to basically maintain a quick cadence and relax. My three focuses on downhill are relaxation, quick strides, and foot placement or nimbleness. I let my legs just sort of fly out from under me and allow my stride length to do it’s own thing as long as my cadence doesn’t slow down. Foot placement refers both to placing the foot directly under the body (just like any other time) and to placing it in a secure spot that won’t cause an injury. I am a slow uphill runner, but I can always catch up and usually pass those who got ahead of me when we hit the back-end of that hill.

  10. Anthony Prior
    October 12, 2012

    Totally agree with shorter stride up hill. I also learnt a technique form my dad which seems to aid effort; to work your arms harder when running uphill.. Look up, short stride, work the arms. Seems to really reduce the effort required.


    • Jason
      October 12, 2012

      Good tip, Anthony. Thanks!