And yes, that even includes the wild, thrilling, yet often scary, “now would not be a pleasant time to fall right now” downhills. Just as in everyone’s life, there are ups and downs: mentally, physically, emotionally, and just like when it comes to overcoming and conquering the hills in your training, racing, and trail adventures. Through my experiences and as a never-ending student of the sport, here are some thoughts to improve your hill climbing and descending – hopefully, you’ll have at least one new takeaway after reading through this. So, here we go!
Mind Over Mountains
Let’s get this one out of the way first, and it’s an important one: Attitude! Learning to embrace the climbs and the discomfort can make all the difference on not only your performance but your overall experience, even if you’re physically prepared. Sometimes that means accepting the grind and getting to work, all while reminding yourself that any discomfort at the moment is temporary. And sometimes, if the conditions of the day call for clear skies, or if ascending any mountain, there could very well possibly be an epic view waiting for you at the top. Being prepared for how you’re going to react when things get tough can be just as important as physical preparation. It is completely okay to acknowledge the mental lows as they come, and that will inevitably creep its way into the brain, but then, how are you going to respond to that? This can apply to any pain cave in the middle of a seemingly endless hill climb or the latter stages of any ultra run.
“All progress takes place outside of the comfort zone.” -Michael John Bobak.
The Ups – Technique
Activate those glutes! These are the muscles that are going to be the primary source for powering up that incline. If these get ignored, then other areas like the hamstrings and calf muscles can easily be overloaded, leading to an overuse injury. The calves are crucial, sure. Just don’t forget about the strengthening and use of the glutes too.
Run tall, and lean in, just ever so slightly, into the hill! Specifically, lean in ever so slightly from the hips while trying to keep your back neutral and not overarching. However, the steeper the grade, the more you’ll want to lean forward. If you lean too excessively forward, then you’ll start to sacrifice the ability to use the full range of motion of your hip flexors. This leads to the next point:
Drive the hips! And just like with flat-ground running, this motion is just as important with climbing. More hip drive means more propulsion off of the ground.
Is it OK to walk?
You betcha. It’s okay to walk (or power-hike)! In fact, in many cases depending on the grade of the incline you’re tackling, or if during long ultras like a 50- or 100-miler, walking can actually be more efficient in stabilizing your heartrate, saving your energy, and can lead to a more robust performance at the end of the day. For many, transitioning into a walk or hike might come with a feeling of shame but try to put that aside and focus on running your own race, which can be your best race. So rather than trying to force-run every step, embrace power-hiking as another skillset to learn and add to your repertoire. The steeper the grade, the more you’ll want to lean forward into the hill to get 100% of your glute muscles and hip joints firing on all cylinders. Drive the knees, engage the glutes, use the arms! For steeper grades, you can rest the hands on your quads. While for more gradual inclines while hiking, pump the arms more, which mountain runner expert Max King has dubbed, the “Mall Walker.”
The Downs – Technique
With so much emphasis in our culture to climb all the things, summit all the mountains, and rack up all the thousands of feet of vert, I’d argue that downhill running can often be overlooked in a training plan or preparation for a trail event or ultra. It puts an enormous toll on our eccentric muscle contractions and can thrash those quads on those long, continuous descents. And there’s nothing worse than when you’ve run out of gears to transition into the next uphill after thrashing the legs on a decline. When scoping out the elevation profile for your next race or adventure, emphasize practicing the downhill (especially during long runs) as much as the uphill to adapt your muscles to handle the course’s demands.
When it comes to technical downhill, shorten your stride and increase your cadence. This tactic will help you avoid over-striding, which, more often than not, can be the reason for those dreaded falls. Look 4-7 steps in front of you, depending on the degree of a techy trail. The more technical or, the steeper the descent, the more you can scan your eyes closer to your feet. Then the less technical, the further out you can look. We want to check ahead to give your brain a chance to communicate with your legs and your feet to optimize the best pattern to conquer these sections or, simply put: visualization. Use your arms to help maintain balance. And otherwise, find that flow, that rhythm, and you’ll dance your way to a fun day on the trails.
If it’s technical AND a wet, slick terrain like we have here in the PNW, then all of the above still applies but try to land even more on your heels to avoid falling. Grippy shoes that have you feeling confident are a must-have too.
Training Tips, Uphill Strides & Workouts
If one of your goals is to be a more robust and faster climber, then training on the hills is undoubtedly an essential element of training, especially in specific training or race specificity in the 2-8 weeks leading up to your goal run. However, don’t ignore level-ground running and overall aerobic running fitness. Getting faster in your training aerobically equates to being a faster climber due to an improved running economy.
Gradual uphill strides are another great way to not only get faster but to practice improving your running economy, developing power from the resistance of the hill, and these have proven to be less prone to injury risk than flat strides. Find and eyeball a grade of about 4-8% and then try a set of 4-6 x 20-30 second accelerations. These are very useful to introduce early in a training block without putting a huge strain on your body and maintaining with these in the more advanced stages of a training block.
If your local terrain is limited, or you need to get in hill training while being a parent-athlete (especially during a pandemic), taking advantage of a treadmill can work wonders (and perhaps paired with your music, podcast, or TV show of choice!). For flat runs, set the incline to 1% minimum as even 1% can have fewer biomechanical issues and fewer injury risks than 0%. Otherwise, having a constant, relentless incline to work with can supercharge your training with interval work between 5-10% grades or power-hiking intervals starting at around 15%.
A few of my favorite hill workouts in the early to middle stages of the overall training cycle include:
- 6-7 x 3:00 hills with very easy downhill jog rest and alternating efforts with 3-4 reps @ 75% moderate effort and 3-4 reps @ 90-95% very hard/max effort.
- Hilly fartleks including uphill, downhill, and flats: 1/2/3/4/5/4/3/2/1 minutes hard with 1-2 minute easy rest between. Another alternative: 4/3/2/1/3/2/1/2/1/1 minutes hard with 1-2 minutes easy rest between.
- 25-40 minute uphill tempo @ 85% perceived effort. This one is a doozy, but I’ve always felt it can be a huge fitness and mental booster. It’s even more fun if you’re chasing a summit tag at the top.
If it weren’t for the hills or the mountains, trail running wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable! Keep climbing, keep smiling, and you’ll conquer any challenge.