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:
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 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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Most people forget this too. Moving from running to walking and back again is brutal. 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!
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.
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! 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.
Learn how to identify what inclines you can run. 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. Start gentle at first, then when the slope gets steeper, employ the technique. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Simon James is the founder of Run the Wild - the UK’s first premier, dedicated trail running holiday adventure company. Operating in the UK and the Alps, they deliver holidays that combine the sense of 'team' from mountaineering, with the thrill of trail running in wild places. Simon is a keen trail runner and marathon runner with a PB of 2hrs 37mins. He is a qualified Leader in Running Fitness as well as International Mountain Leader and offers treks in the Alps.