Mention hill running to most runners and they are out of breath just thinking about it. Most of us associate running uphill with effort, muscle soreness, breathlessness and fatigue. For this reason, many runners avoid hills in training and struggle on race day or on a new training route when they do encounter a hill they cannot avoid.
A spectator’s point of view
When supporting a race, I will always cheer at a point where runners are on an uphill stretch. It’s the time when they need most support, when their motivation is at its lowest and when their head is telling them to walk. It’s interesting to watch the different runners from this spectator position. I notice how many runners seem to make hills a lot harder on their bodies than they need to. It’s interesting to observe how few runners use simple strategies to make their uphill running easier on their bodies.
The different approaches
The majority of runners attempt to run fast up the hill with long strides, with a view to completing it as quickly as possible. Other runners appear to be in denial and keep their heads down, hoping they will reach the top quicker by not knowing what’s ahead.
Both of these types arrive at the top breathless with their legs burning. This is no surprise as they have tensed their faces and bodies, reduced their lung capacity and overworked their leg muscles on the way.
Alongside these runners are those who don’t even allow their bodies to take on the hill so they start walking long before their bodies need to. None of these runners seem to consider that running a little slower might make the hill slightly easier.
The perfect hill runner
The other type of runner I observe are those lucky runners who embrace hills as they effortlessly glide upwards. These are the runners we aspire to be, yet we think their approach is beyond our capability. It doesn’t have to be. These runners have no great secret. They have just approached the hill with a different attitude and technique. If you aspire to be one of these runners, it might be time to think about approaching hills in a different way.
Applying a few simple strategies to making the hill easier helps runners of all levels. The larger the steps we take, the more we use our calves and leg muscles to power the hill. Deciding to run using all the body, rather than the lower leg muscles, can take pressure off the legs, the breath and share the effort of the hill across the full body.
Take small steps
Small steps are key to taking pressure off your calves and quads. They also prevent you from over-striding and bending at the waist. Use the image of the hill being a stairway and run up like you are running upstairs. Avoid running on your toes. Relax your lower legs. You will use less effort in your legs, your feet will land much closer to your body and you will need a lot less muscle power to move forward into the next step.
Use your upper body
We cannot use gravity to help us on an uphill unfortunately, so it’s helpful to call on the extra resources of our back muscles and our arms. Driving the arms upwards and forwards at the same beat as your small steps will help lift you up the hill. Avoid tensing the shoulders and wrists. Keep the shoulders down but imagine you are punching up towards your cheeks.
Look where you are going
If you are bending at the waist and looking down at the ground, you have instantly reduced your lung capacity and started to overuse your legs. Make the uphill a whole body effort. Get in good posture and look where you are going. Being tall gives you more space for air. If you need a little help with this, imagine that the person in front of you has a string pulling you along behind them. Keep your eye on their back.
If you are still not enjoying it, try faking it. Our bodies relax when we smile and tension can disappear. You will be surprised how a smile may give you the lift you need and take pressure off a tense and negative mindset. At the very least the onlookers will think you are making the hill look effortless.
Reframe the hill
If you think you cannot run up the hill, you probably won’t. Break the hill into small chunks. Distract yourself from getting to the top by focusing only on getting to a particular landmark. Imagine you are just going upstairs. Count to 50 steps and see where you are then. Focus on the step you are in and what you are doing in that step to make your body as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
Imagery can work great on a hill. Most of us fill our heads with negative thoughts on a hill, believing we cannot run it or won’t enjoy it. Remember everyone else is feeling similar to you and you are not the only one struggling. Changing our mindset can make a big difference. I like to imagine that I’m running on an escalator so the ground is moving upwards with me and carrying me along with it.
Decide when to walk
There may well come a time on a hill where walking makes more sense than running. On a very steep uphill, it’s very common to overuse calf muscles by running on your toes. This might be the perfect time to walk and preserve energy. Don’t feel like a failure walking certain hills. Even the best ultra-runners are humble enough to realise that walking can be better than running on certain terrain.
Change your mindset
Wherever there is an uphill, there is a downhill close by. In order to have the freedom and ease of a downhill, we have to run the uphill. Running on different terrains makes us stronger and more capable on the flat and over time our bodies will adapt and eventually enjoy the hills.
This article was first published in The Irish Times in 29th August 2016