For most of my running career, going uphill is where I get dropped. Hills set my leg muscles on fire crushed my ego. Going up meant getting dusted by competitors. I pushed harder on descents to make up for the time I lost on the climbs. But as a trail runner, an inability to run uphill efficiently is a mountain-sized weakness. So I decided to face it and fix it.
Here’s what I learned.
Form is Key
Runners often hinge forward excessively from the waist, which strains their hips and lower back, inhibiting deep breathing and reduces their hamstrings’ ability to generate power. I found I was leaning too far forward and driving my hips into the trail. In doing so, I was cutting off the strength of my glutes and hamstrings and putting my calves and low back in overdrive.
Instead, keep your chest up and open while leaning your center of gravity slightly into the hill. Fellow athletes may advise you to lean into the hill. Unfortunately, many runners to hunch at the waist when they take that advice. Hunching at the waist constricts your airway and makes deep breathing more difficult. When you lean forward, lean at the hips, not the waist. Proper form will allow the glutes and hamstrings to work at their full capacity.
Propel Yourself Forward
Hills aren’t the place for long strides. When you need to propel up rising terrain, keep a short stride and maintain powerful arm swings that travel from the hips to the sternum. On your next hill, try to keep your footfalls directly beneath your center of gravity rather than reaching ahead with your leading foot. Shorter strides can help prevent muscle strains and spikes in your heart rate.
Top that off with powerful plantar flexion, exploding off your ankle and using that last bit of power to propel you up the hill with minimal energy expenditure. Think of finishing your stride with a powerful flick of the ankle, pointing your toes towards the ground beneath you. Focusing on plantar flexion can save a lot of energy and can boost running economy.
The Power of The Hike
My inability to run uphill led me to become an efficient uphill hiker out of necessity. I was getting dusted on runnable climb in trail races and had to find a way to stay competitive. In the 2017 Western States 100, where I crossed the finish line in first, I probably hiked more than any other woman in the top 10. Often, uphill trails are so steep or sustained that power hiking can actually be more efficient than trying to maintain even a slow running cadence.
With enough practice, your power-hiking pace may exceed your uphill running one. In some terrain, you’ll be able to hike at a faster pace while letting your “running muscles” actually recover. In faster races or short trail runs, alternate running and hiking uphill to get farther, faster while also allowing different muscle groups to work and rest.