How to Run Uphills Quicker
Running up hill is never easy, it requires a combination of strength, technique and stamina. No amount of running on the flats can prepare you for this energy sapping fight against gravity! Living out in the Alps has really helped me hone this aspect of my running, in fact it really is all I do out here! Most of the alpine trail races have fearsome amounts of ascent and it’s impossible to simply amble up the hills if you want to get a respectable finish. However, it’s probably it won’t be possible to run everything, even inefficient to do so, so other than just working on your strength and stamina you need to develop techniques and strategies to deal with each slope you will encounter. This aspect of trail running and mountain running is gaining in popularity, the ‘Vertical Km’ is already a staple for many race directors and more and more trail runners are realising this challenge has its rewards. Certainly, if you are interested in saving your joints and just pushing your cardio and muscles then this is the type of event for you. Even if it doesn’t float your boat, just as a mountaineer needs to be able to bring to bear many different skills in order to counter what a mountain can throw at him/her without necessarily being a specialist, so does a proficient trail runner, as hills are always on the menu in some shape or form when encountering a running adventure. This article will give you some ideas on what to think about in both preparing and running uphill as well as some strategies on how to deal with those unrunnable climbs. Let’s take a look:
WHAT'S IN THE TOOL BOX?
So, before we even step up to face the “running up a hill” challenge let’s see what’s on offer in the tool box to give us some help. First, your trail shoes. The better the grip for the trail, the more effective and efficient each step will be. You work hard for each of those strides so make sure you don’t lose any momentum on small slips or slides. A good grippy trail shoe with the right tread for the terrain will see each foot placement hold and save you wasting energy on repeating any of those hard-earned moves. You also may want to think about how you lace your shoe as well, tight lacing around the toes is best avoided and similar to downhill running the grip should be slightly firmer on the bridge of the foot, cutting off the blood to the toes can be quite painful! Next-up, running poles. If you have a choice, use them. Without doubt they make life easier. Trouble is you may not be allowed to use them. In the UK the some trail races do not allow them, and in the Alps often the vertical km races or short length high ascent races do not allow them either, due to the risk of injury to each other on steep, narrow routes. Though, at the moment, a lot of the long-distance races do, like the UTMB. You’ll also be pleased to know that Run the Wild also allows them, in fact we actively encourage them. I’m not going to get into the ethics of whether they should be used, but if they are allowed, use them. Make sure you practise though as if you haven’t then it’s quite easy to get soreness in your elbows (tendonitis) and also it helps to prepare by building up arm strength. They not only provide more stability, they share the work with your legs against gravity and unlike some of the other techniques I’ll discuss below, keep you upright, lungs open and good visibility on the ground ahead. We will look at trail running pole techniques in another article but they are a key technique for uphill running.
There are a handful of techniques that you can use on the hill. What you choose, or are indeed forced to use depends on limiting factors, including the angle of the slope and your personal ability. The stronger you get the more you will be able to run, but there will always be a rubicon to cross, somewhere you have to start walking, scrambling or even climbing to get up the hill. So, what are the limiting factors to you being able to run up hill?
1. Slope Angles - This is fundamentally what the fuss is all about! Let’s put this into perspective. A 0 degree slope is flat ground, 9 degrees is about the maximum gradient available on a treadmill (15%), 20 degrees is the limit for running very short distances, 30-40 degrees are pisted ski slopes, 50 degrees your hands would touch the ground in front of you and would need to scramble, 90 degrees is a vertical wall! Most people will find 3 degrees challenging if they are not used to hills, and most runners struggle with more than 7 degrees for any sustained period of time! Hence, we are dealing with a narrow band of slopes to be able to run. However, all this will be really dependent on where you are physically, and if you work hard you can push your angle.
2. Strength - Having strong leg muscles, arms and core will help you win the fight against gravity. The muscles in the posterior part of the leg will have to do the most work: glutes, hamstrings and calves. However, also the quads, adductors and abductors will come into play. Since moving up hill, whether walking or running, requires you to lean forwards, you are more up on the balls of your feet (the front of your foot) and so your calves can get a lot of loading. This means you need to think about strength training such as squats and lunges, and also how you manage the loading on your tendons. Don’t forget to strengthen your arms as they will really help with the techniques. The conclusion is that the more you hill training you do, the better you will become. However, you will also benefit from strength training in the gym and don’t forget to never increase intensity or volume to reduce risk of injury.
3. Lactic acid threshold - Your body is a machine and moving uphill requires much more effort all round. Oxygen deficits (oxygen need vs availability) shoot up compared to running on flats as you engage at least 10% more work in your leg muscles than when on the flat. It’s very easy to start off too quick and suddenly get flushed with lactic acid and have to ease off. Your lungs, your heart, your muscles all require so much more from you, studies have shown oxygen deficits can reach 80% on 10 degree gradients. Running uphill can therefore be akin to sprinting, but sprinters only have seconds before the end of their race. The best uphill runners have strong legs, big lungs and a strong heart. You will benefit from training your lactic acid threshold at track and tempo training sessions and getting that VO2 Max as high as possible.
4. Stamina - Working on your endurance, both mentally and physically will help you develop the stamina required to keep going. Physically this is done by training your body to run consistently on a slope angle you can manage, mentally to keep being able to switch from walking to running and back to maximise your performance over the ground, as well as to keep going until the end. Often knowing what angles (either visually or measuring with an app on your phone) will help you know what your current level is. Mentally you need to be able to break the route down to give it your best, and then stick with it even when it feels horrible.
5. Strategy - Having poor strategy on the hill lets most people down. From underestimating the distance, angle, to not pushing themselves when they could be running and not walking and vice versa, they all need to be considered in your strategy. Break down the route into sections, this will help create bite sized portions which will keep you motivated but also work out which technique is the most appropriate for that section. Therefore, knowing the route will really help. If you find that you are struggling with fatigue switch back into a less intensive technique every certain number of steps. In a moment, I will discuss the techniques that you can bring to bear when you develop your strategy, so you can maximise the efficiency at how quickly you can get up the hill.
6. Transitioning - Most people forget this too. Moving from running to walking and back again is brutal. You have to overcome both the mental and physical inertia. Muscles in your legs suddenly get washed with lactic acid and different muscles will scream as you change gear. It’s worth getting familiar with this feeling as it is usually only a momentary peak in the overall pain of what it is uphill running! It's all too easy to stop running and start walking sooner than needed but to wait just a bit longer from transitioning back into running, and all of those missed chances add up over the whole route.
We now have identified why running up hill is so difficult! Just try it and you’ll know why. Let’s now explore what techniques we can bring to the hill in order to have the best possible chance to win this battle. As with all these techniques you need to identify on the path ahead of you where you need to transition into the next most appropriate technique, you will need all of them at some point, maybe even within just a short distance.
There are 3 techniques you can use for running on the hill depending on whether your goal is to get stronger or get to the end quicker.
Running - To run up hill you need to be able to carry enough momentum that at some point both feet are off the ground, if not, then you are walking! In order to run up hill you need to shorten your stride and move onto the balls of your feet. Lean slightly forwards and stay strong. Learn how to identify what inclines you can run, even if that means using a clinometer to measure them (free downloadable apps available). Your benchmark will be being able to run without hitting your lactic acid threshold, but at the same time pushing it so you are just back from it.
Pros: cadence stays high, quickest technique
Cons: exhausting and if you push it too much build up too much lactic acid, doesn't work efficiently on steep slopes
Running in low gears - I advise my clients, that if they can jog on the spot then theoretically they can run up almost any gradient. It’s like bike gears. Go with a smaller gear, ie shorten your stride until you are just moving a few inches, landing on the balls of your feet and lean forward according to the slope. You will likely go super slow on the steeper sections but using this method means you will set up a base for being able to increase the slope angles you can run on.
Pros: cadence stays high, great for building a stronger base for running steeper inclines, good for training
Cons: slow and walking is often quicker
Run / Walk - If you find you are fatiguing on a consistent gradient, switch between running and walking after counting 20 paces or so. This way you maintain momentum without committing to walking. It requires mental stamina to keep transitioning but is far quicker than just walking.
Pros: quicker than walking, good way to catch your breath, deals with consistent inclines that are just beyond your ability to run
Cons: requires mental discipline and stamina
At times running is just too exhausting, maybe you need a break, maybe the slope angle is too steep or maybe you are a quicker hill walker than hill runner. There are three techniques which you can employ.
Walking normally – Long strides, as much on the balls of your feet as possible whilst swinging your arms and leaning into the slope, remaining nicely upright. Try to keep momentum, this should still feel quite maximal but it will give you an opportunity to catch your breath.
Pros: brings your heart rate down, feels more comfortable, great on steps and broken ground
Cons: it’s slow, it’s not a maximal use of resources, a bit too relaxed if you are racing
Hands just below your waist – I’ve never seen this one talked about before but I find it very useful. Using the same technique as walking but by making a light fist in each hand, with fingers pointing inwards or towards the waist, push off with each stride on the very top of the quads, just down from the waist (some people find this comfortable with open hands instead). I find this gives me a little extra boost, especially when I’m tired. Walking normally often means I’m not using my arms to help much, so this is great halfway house for when the gradient is a little steeper but not so steep for all-out war but still means you can get more power in each stride.
Pros: keeps momentum over slightly steeper ground, brings in more upper body strength, lungs stay open
Cons: slower than running
Hands on thighs – a classic technique and easily identified with hands placed on thighs (either pointing inwards or outwards), pushing up in synch with each leg. It’s worth practising though. Some shorts or leggings have stickier material so you can get better grip for the push off which is worth considering. At this point when I’m employing this technique I’m often sucking in air and dribbling a bit with maximal effort. Use it for steep gradients, all the way up until you need to scramble. It works best with big strides and is extremely powerful. You’ll be hunched over your body more than the other techniques, so try to keep looking up which will help oxygen flow and also stop you heading off the path! The steeper the path the less hunched over you will be so if you find yourself overly hunched it’s likely you on a gradient that is runnable. Training arm strength will help.
Pros: extremely powerful way of getting up steep ground, full use of body resources, more efficient than running on steep slopes
Cons: easy to miss the transition back to running, so keep a look out for the over hunched feel
Everyone finds hills challenging. However, by following some of the guidelines above you are likely to get the best out of yourself over the ground. It’s something that you can only improve on if you train for it, both on hills and also off them with strength training. Think about your body working as one unit, arms, legs and core. The sheer intensity of hill running makes it a full body experience and massive calorie burner. Find out the slope angles you can currently run and push them! Don’t forget to run everything you can run, and employ the walking techniques with maximal effect. Keep an eye for the next article on using running poles up hill!