I live in British Columbia. Hills are everywhere. In fact, mountains are everywhere.
If I am planning a run, doing something flat is rarely an option.
So, becoming efficient at running hills is a good thing. Oftentimes, it can be the difference between finishing well on a race or finishing at all.
As a nice bonus, running hills is going to make you much fitter. Not only will you gain a cardiovascular boost, but hills will increase both the strength and power of your regular stride.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
There is a risk to hill running though. It drastically increases the impact on our joints. Plus, it is also incredibly stressful on our systems. I recommend not doing more than one hard hill run a week or you will quickly learn the meaning of overtraining.
Before you plan a hill run, it is helpful to have an idea on how to properly tackle hills.
Running up hill
Some hills are not going to affect your running stride at all. They simply are not steep enough to warrant a change. We are not talking about those type of hills.
If the hill is steep enough to warrant, in my experience this is somewhere north of 8% grade, then you will have a few immediate changes to your stride.
- Shorten your stride – shorter more powerful strides are more efficient.
- Engage your arms – your arms will help you set your pace. Swinging your arms will force your legs to follow the rhythm.
- Lean slightly into the hill – this is definitely NOT from the waist, however. Instead, try to lean from the ankles. Easier said than done, but there you have it.
- Stand tall – Keep your posture erect, this will keep your airways open and help engage your upper body. A good trick is to look ahead rather than down. This will force you more upright.
- Run through the hill – the top of the hill is not your goal. Instead, plan on running past the top about 10 yards to start.
It is easy to forget that there are two sides to a hill. Most of us only focus on the up and how hard it is going to be. But, there are strong arguments that suggest improving your downhill runs is more beneficial to overall finish times.
Even though running downhill feel easier on the system it is considerably harder on the big leg muscles.
Descending feels easy aerobically, but each step triggers muscle-damaging eccentric contractions in the quadriceps and lower legs, says Greg Wells, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Toronto and the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes.
As they say, practice makes perfect.
- Know when it is runnable – A long run out, on a very steep slope is never a good idea. Not only is it incredibly difficult to run down a 20-degree slope, but it also increases the risk of injury due to excessive injury. Sometimes, it is just better to slow down and protect the body.
- Good form is the key – Engage your core. Lean forward not back which is the natural tendency. When leaning forward try to lean from the ankles again not from the waist. And most importantly, shorten your stride and quicken your cadence. This will force you to land midfoot without a straight leg, which puts incredible stress on your knee.
- Look ahead – It is natural to look at your feet. You are going to want to fight this urge. Instead focus about 5 to 8 feet ahead of you. A good trick is to envision a grapefruit between your chin and your chest. This will force your eyes up.
- Remember quick feet – Try to keep contact times to a minimum. As stated earlier, quicken your stride. Taking more steps will keep you in better control and allow you to minimize the eccentric contractions cause by big impacts.
How hills affect a run
On Race day, having a strategy for hills is super important. Should you run uphill hard and recover on the downs or should you go easy on the uphills and bomb the downs?
Honestly, I think that the answer to this question is very individual. For me, I am a good downhiller but a below average uphill runner. So, I try to stay in the race going uphill and make up any distance on the down.
I have heard many people refer to this as a much more efficient use of calories. Going hard on the uphill burns a ton of calories, and for anything longer than a half marathon you are going to already be in a massive calorie deficit. So running smart may be the better option to actually get to the finish line.