How to run uphill


Welcome. This is a guide to the main techniques for efficient and fast uphill running. Here is the secret: There is only way to get better at uphill running and that is to do it. 

Blowing up

Blowing up means testing your limits. Breathing peaks. There is an overwhelming feeling that compels you to back off. Working near your limit spends energy fast. Sometimes too fast, which can churn through your reserves. In an event this can be disastrous and reduce your performance. You scramble to recover, but even low speeds can be tough after blowing up.

There is great value in training yourself right to (and even past) your limits. Generally, I find that most recreational runners underuse this in training. By taking yourself to your limits, you learn valuable lessons. If you tune in closely, you will feel sensations that come, go and fluctuate as your effort rises. You want to learn the story that comes with increasing effort. This way you know more about ‘reading your effort’.

Reading your effort (RPE = rate of perceived exertion):

Rate your perceived effort out of 10. You might say to yourself, ‘this feels like 7/10’. There is agreement that using your effort score is effective for planning and undertaking running training. The really neat thing is that your effort changes more subtly than heart rate. By learning your body, you can make micro-adjustments that often fly under the radar of pace or heart rate.

The most common changes are breathing and leg muscle effort. If you are astute, there are finer things to feel as well. This might be the movement of your arms, a sense of spring, a particular emotion/mood, where your eyes focus, or even taste. Top notch runners often find themselves in a meditative like state.

Minimising injury

Injury risk is partly linked to big changes in running load. Heed this advice. Make your training changes thoughtfully. If you add in some of these exercises, make room in your weekly training load to accommodate the new stuff. We provide individualised advice on injury recovery and performance training. We work closely with Adelaide’s running coaches to minimise chance of injury and maximise enjoyment/performance.

Exercise one

Find a moderate hill with a steady incline and a fairly easy surface (fire tracks work great for this). It will need to be about 400 metres or longer. Start off slow and gradually increase your effort. Feel the changes that happen in your body. Keep increasing your effort. There is a tendency to slow or taper your effort as you near the top. Resist this and keeping dialling up your power. Take yourself to your absolute limit. The finish should be the point where you absolutely cannot continue; hands on head or bent over gasping for air.

You will learn:

i) What your 10 feels like.

ii) Where your breathing spikes. This is called your ventilatory/respiratory threshold (more on this in a future post).

iii) How to use your effort score to avoid blowing up in an event.

Efficient uphill technique

Running uphill needs a different technique to flat running. There are two key differences.

First, you will take shorter strides. You want most of your power to come from pushing down and back. This works best when you put your foot down underneath you or just in front of your body. It is less efficient to stride out in front, which means you are having to pull more.

Second, you will naturally land more towards a forefoot strike. The slope of the hill makes this happen, you don’t need to change your foot angle. To be efficient, you want to let your heel drop a bit and spring through your foot and ankle. If you make your ankle rigid, your calves don’t have the chance to help. This demands more from your thighs and gluteals and will create early fatigue.

Be strong

If you already include specific training for up hills, you will know the benefits. A once or twice weekly strength training program increases your drive uphill and improves speed and endurance. We guide runners on how to use strength training well. Interestingly, being stronger lets you be relatively more relaxed. This is an often overlooked benefit of being fit for the job.

Think ahead and run keenly

Most of the time, you will know how far you are running, over what sort of terrain and how fast you want to be. During your run, you are regularly predicting your reserves, targets and performance modifiers (energy, comfort/pain, hydration, nutrition, focus, etc). With practice, you will dial your ability to modify your effort to maximise your speed while still making it over the line.

Know when to walk

You are best to walk when your effort score rises too high for your event. That said, there is no exact score. In a short run, you can afford to work at a higher intensity. With long hills or varying terrain, you want to keep your effort score stable and modify your speed to match.

Don’t walk for too long. Some people get to the top of the hill and start running once the downhill has truly set in. A trick from Dej Jamieson is to start a light run just before the top of the hill. This prepares you for the change in gradient and helps you to be quicker.

Always set a target where you will trial running again. This prevents you from walking for too long. Say to yourself, ‘I will test running from that tree’ (or rock, root, rut, etc). If your effort is still high, set a new target and walk further.

Exercise two

Find a good hill. Choose a distance (400m to 3km) or time (1-20min). Set off at a cruising effort. Then steadily increase your effort. Keep increasing until you move into an unsustainable effort zone. Then reduce your effort and find your sustainable zone. Hold this for 30 seconds. Then make small increases and decreases in your effort, finding the edge of your sustainable limit. Practicing small fluctuations near your sustainable limit is a great way to get fitter and learn your body.

Have fun and touch base with us if you would like our guidance.

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RunningDave Moen