Uphill Running

Uphill Running – The best technique is the one that you already do.

It’s been close to 4 years now that I’ve lived in the Ariège Pyrenees, and if there’s one thing I do a lot of its up hill running. Now, when I first got here I was a touch over awed by the climbs, In the UK I lived close to a place called the Malvern Hills and in order to get a cumulative vertical gain of 1500 Metres I had to run the entire 9 mile chain twice. Now on my doorstep, I have close to the same amount of vert in one climb, about 1200 metres, from door to the top of the valley in about 4.5 miles. It’s been a somewhat steep learning curve (sorry).

About a year and a half ago I wrote this article At the time I found it pretty difficult to sustain up hill running for more than a few hundred metres of gain. Fast forward to the present day and I’m now able to run in access of 1000 metres in one go – running – no walking, no poles, no chairlifts. Just pure up hill running. I easily pass people on the hills in races now, when folk seem to start walking I’m still happily grinding out the climb at a reasonable running pace – it feels good!
In this post I’m going to share the secret of efficient up hill technique, and how you can get better at up hill running…

The Main Secret:

Put one foot in front of the other continuously and don’t stop until you get to the top.

Sounds easy enough. It is. There is no secret, no best technique and no special way to run up hill. Practice enough and your body will automatically work out its preferred and most economical way to climb.

But what about all the trainers and coaches who preach perfect form? Isn’t there “one best way” to run up hill?

It’s been very well studied that the pursuit of perfect form can be detrimental to our running economy.  And let’s be honest, if there is an area of running where economy is vital it’s in hill climbing.   In his book “80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster” Matt Fitzgerald goes in to depth on the subject of running economy and the”cost of correction” Fitzgerald provides solid evidence that runners who change their natural style or stride perform worse as a result.

Over the past few years I’ve come to see this personally. When I started down the minimal path, I like many others became obsessed with pursuing the idea of the “correct way to run.” In the process of transitioning to minimal shoes I looked at mimicking barefoot running form whilst shod. It took a lot of concentration but I gradually adapted. I stuck doggedly to it for the years that followed: the idea that there is a one true perfect form that fits all runners. I was convinced that a fore-foot or mid-foot landing was “optimal” and a cadence anything less than 180 would leave me sidelined with injury. In the past few years I’ve become less dogmatic, studies have now proved that there is no best foot strike or “best way to run” and according to Matt Fitzgerald book – Mo Farah’s cadence is just 160!

In my own experience, as I’ve naturally gravitated from a zero cushion, zero drop shoe to a more moderately cushioned lower drop shoe, I’ve seen my stride relax too. I’m no longer concerned about fitting in to the constraints of a branded running form. As a result of letting go and allowing my body to find its own stride again I’ve seen year on year race improvement, fitness gains and continual PB’s on my Strava Segments!

As Matt Fitzgerald writes, “Each runners stride automatically becomes more efficient over time so that conscious changes in technique are always counterproductive.”

An example of this “Self Optimization” in my own uphill running – I barely move my arms anymore. A form obsessed coach would seriously criticize this, but I’ve come to accept that my low relaxed carriage and almost non-existent arm swing is my body’s way of conserving energy as I run up hill in a steady aerobic state.

All of these changes are a result of letting go of an idea of “perfect form” but one thing I’m still careful about is posture. We can’t forget that the majority of workplace environments cause bad posture. Modern life generally sucks from a postural standpoint (I know another one.) One thing I do think about when running up hill is not to slouch too much, to pull my shoulders down a little, open my chest a bit, keep my abs flat… But In my case I really need to do this when I’m not running! I’m tall and as a result of growing up surrounded by short people I’ve developed a poor posture that I have to fight against daily! Cursed gravity!
In summary, the secret to uphill running is just to do it, don’t over think and in time (it took me three years) and with enough hills you’re body will self optimize its own perfect technique that’s tailor made for you.

Further TRT’s for uphill running…

Grinding out the vert.

This is where it gets fun, in hill running the greatest sense of achievement, I believe, is to grind out a climb without walking. There’s nothing better than reaching a col or a summit and thinking, “I didn’t walk any of that.” As my stride has developed over the years I’ve noticed my ability to keep on “running” up hill has too. In fact I prefer running up hill in a quiet meditative aerobic state than power walking. The later is undoubtedly more efficient on steep grades, and after a while energy levels can’t support continual run climbing, but I can slow it all down and pace myself up the sharper bits and as time goes by I find I can go longer uphill in “running” mode before I call it quits and revert to walking.

trail des cascades1

Set your goals and the pace will adjust like magic.

Imagine running a half marathon the best you can do, you reach the finish line completely drained then the race director tells you that it was supposed to be a marathon! – you need to tack on an extra 13 miles. The chances are you’re NOT going to do it. You will more than likely crumple in to a deflated pile on the floor, the prospect of another 13 is ridiculous.   Even though you may have run a marathon before and know you can complete that distance – that wasn’t the task that was set for you, Your brain and your body say NO!

Humans are task orientated, we like to know how long something is going to take, when we have a specific goal, like the end of a race, we’re quite willing to suffer for that finish line. It’s accepted that there is a certain amount of psychology that underpins the physiology. Hill running fits nicely in to this paradigm – if we know how long the climb is going to be we can make it to the top!

If you set out that your goal is to reach the top of a mountain, on a known path, where you can perceive the finish you’ll easily be able to pace yourself to the top – over a period of time you will get quicker and quicker at this route – simple logic. Your stride will self optimize, you may walk less (if at all) and you will gradually find it easier.

A great pacing test is to run up hill as fast as you can to a given point. You should, without really trying too hard, manage to pace yourself to the finish  – as long as you are familiar with the trail.   Every month I do the same “Vertical Half Kilometer” time trial – a steep 500 metres of gain in less than 4 km which is now saved as a Strava segment. So far, apart from the odd occasion, I’ve made an improvement each time – got it down to just over 30 mins. At the beginning I took off dramatic chunks from my personal best but now I guess I’m close to the fastest I can go, I’m taking seconds off, no longer minutes.

It’s all about pace. And I’m sorry there’s no magic pill, you have to practice and repeat your routes, practice and repeat. You will get faster I promise.

But what if you don’t know the climb?

There’s usually a situation where you undertake a climb for the first time and you need to perform to your very best. Maybe a race or perhaps you are attempting to escape from prison.

The approach I’ve tried most often is to use a simple stopwatch timer – armed with the knowledge of how long it takes me to climb at a steady running pace and the amount of vertical gain in relation to the linear distance required to reach the top, I can usually get the pacing right – It’s even easier when you emerge from the tree line and can see the summit! But that’s not always possible – weather can obscure peaks and a climb can seem to take forever.

Another method is to use an altimeter, this is probably the best technique when you can’t see anything and its about as accurate an indication of how much more climb you have left to go than anything else.  You can relax and just see the vertical gain accumulating before your eyes. Perhaps the best approach.
The key thing is to be able to visualize the end goal and your pace will adjust like magic! Speed will come after practice.

What NOT to do:

Type “uphill running” in to YouTube and then copy someone else. Don’t Do that. Do not attempt to copy the rigid straight jacket techniques found in Chi Running or POSE. Leave the pseudoscience alone – walk away.  In fact it’s been shown that as an athlete gets fitter and more experienced they tend to have a more variable stride – looseness or fluidity develops. I’m not suggesting that professional athletes run around with their arms flaying all over the place, but they certainly don’t stick to the confines of a branded running style. If you take the time to look at a YouTube video of a top mountain runner like Killian Jornet, you’ll understand what I’m talking about; an individual, relaxed and fluid stride that is unique to Killian. Get out there and practice enough and you’ll be rewarded with your own best uphill running technique.  Enjoy the grind!


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