When I was a kid, there was a notorious Nike commercial starring baseball legends Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. In the ad, they see Mark McGwire hit a towering home run, and the camera pans to Heather Locklear, who seems mightily impressed. The diminutive Maddux and Glavine realize their finesse pitching won’t cut it, so the next 45 seconds is a training montage of them getting jacked and practicing hitting. At the end, they both hit home runs, and the camera pans to Locklear gazing on admiringly. They bump arms and say the famous catchphrase: “Chicks dig the long ball.”
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Now, there is a lot wrong with that commercial. One, it was 1999 and there are some gender problems that it and society needed to work through. Two, an honest montage of trying to emulate McGwire would probably involve the DEA and testifying before Congress. Three, the commercial ends with Locklear turning the tables and asking “Have you guys seen Mark?” That only makes sense if her character was a steroid dealer, which would have been a great twist.
Trail races are often dependent on hiking ability right alongside running ability, as much as that pains my strides-and-speed-loving heart to say.
But the underlying message of the catchphrase is still true: home runs are sexy. Dunks are sexy. Goals are sexy. On trails, running really fast up and down mountains is sexy, at least based on videos of Kilian Jornet on ridgelines that send tingles up my spine.
You know what’s not sexy? Hiking. Hiking is not sexy at all.
Trail running viral videos rarely show someone walking. Training plans (including those on intro to 50K+ distances and half-marathons I wrote a couple of weeks ago) usually just mention hiking in passing. But trail races are often dependent on hiking ability right alongside running ability, as much as that pains my strides-and-speed-loving heart to say.
Underlying running-economy training principles
We know running-focused training can improve running economy over long-time horizons, making every pace take less energy. Hiking may work similarly, but since it’s lower intensity and impact, it would likely require a ton of activity-specific workload. That may be less productive for time-limited athletes if it means that hiking training is done at the expense of the development of running economy.
Studies show hiking is more efficient at steep grades and slower speeds, so it’s an essential skill for most trail runners. But we don’t want to get too good at going slower or steeper if that means neglecting getting faster.
Fortunately, running fitness generally corresponds to strong hiking with enough hiking training to adapt to the neuromuscular and biomechanical demands of the activity. Good running economy on level ground translates to better uphill running economy at moderate grades (see this 2019 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology), which translates to higher output on climbs. With an adaptation period involving hiking training, that higher overall output seems to lead to strong enough hiking in most athletes . . . eventually.
That last word is the key one in this whole article: eventually. A good runner without enough hiking practice will probably be an inefficient hiker, with a big engine but a crappy . . . chassis? If you can’t tell, I don’t understand cars. When the good runner has to hike in a longer or steeper trail race (as almost everyone has to eventually), they will be slower and use more energy than they should with their fitness levels. They may even cramp up, a phenomenon I see all the time in unpracticed hikers, including myself.
Hiking training basics
The cool part is that it doesn’t take years of hiking training to become a solid hiker (though, as in all things, reaching your peak potential requires a lot of time and work). For example, an athlete I coach training for an upcoming 50-miler started doing the treadmill hiking protocol below two times per week, as a supplement to normal running training. On the first day, her heart rate was about 160 at 15% grade and 3.8 miles per hour. After a couple of weeks, her heart rate was 145 at 4 miles per hour. That’s indicative of improvement in hiking economy, and, based on what I have seen in coaching, that could improve for at least a month or two before leveling off, with variance based on background/training approach.
The explanation for rapid hiking-economy improvements might have to do with the neuromuscular and biomechanical demands mentioned earlier. Hiking form is strange for many of us, and it introduces a major stress on the body. After a hiking workout, athletes often complain of back and butt soreness that can last for a few days. Fast hiking takes practice, with the nervous system adapting to the peculiar motion and the muscles adapting to the unique loading patterns. Those stresses cause heart rate to skyrocket for many athletes.
But the actual power output demands of hiking are usually not extreme compared to faster running, even as it feels immensely difficult at first. Hiking practice is largely about bringing the output and energy-consumed metrics closer together, making the movement pattern more sustainable, even on tired legs.
Hiking training options
You can practice hiking through lots of different methods. The best is just to hike with focus on steep grades on training runs. The ideal scenario is training on terrain that is similar to your race, practicing similar demands of race day. Remember, hiking is not a break from effort, but an opportunity to put out a different type of strong effort to improve performance.
Another option is to do focused hikes. Ultra champion and top coach Ian Sharman is a fantastic race-day hiker, and he does a lot of hiking, often with a weight vest. Based on the success of Sharman and his athletes, that approach clearly works. Purposeful hiking adds aerobic work too, for an added benefit that likely acts similar to cross training, which most studies indicate helps running when done in addition to running training, rather than in place of it.
If neither of those options work, you can use the treadmill for “tread hiking.” When athletes I coach don’t hike much in training (sometimes due to living in flat areas), I often ask them to use treadmill hiking as a training supplement before hike-heavy events. The general protocol is pretty simple.
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How to “tread hike”
• Warm-up with some dynamic stretching or other warm-up routine;
• Start with some easy walking on the treadmill to get used to the motion on flat ground, gradually increasing the speed to around 3 miles per hour;
• Turn the grade up to 15%, which is usually the highest grade available (higher grades work if your race is super steep, but 15% seems to help with steeper climbing too);
• Using good form, increase the pace to around 4 miles per hour, or whenever it gets difficult to maintain the pace without straining substantially;
• Hike for anywhere from one to two miles at that pace, alternating a couple tenths of a mile per hour faster or slower as needed.
Some athletes stay at 3 miles per hour, others can crank it up all the way to 4 miles per hour right off the bat. Over the course of one to two sessions a week (done as afternoon activities following a morning run or in place of a rest day), they usually notice that they can increase the pace a bit without increased effort. About a month of that combined with normal trail training often gives them confidence to deploy that hiking skill for training adventures and on race day.
A typical schedule
Monday: Rest and recovery
Tuesday: Easy run with strides
Wednesday: Running workout a.m + tread hike or outdoor hike p.m.
Thursday: Easy run
Friday: Easy run with strides or hike or rest
Saturday: Long run, ideally with steep climbs
Sunday: Easy run, ideally with steep climbs and strides + optional tread hike or outdoor hike p.m.
If you’re advanced, you can even do treadmill climbing workouts that mix in running too in place of the pure hikes above. Here’s an article on that method from 2018, used by some of the pros I coach for skyraces coming from non-mountainous areas. Finally, stairmills can be effective in practicing very steep terrain. I tried one once and almost broke my face within 30 seconds, so be careful.
There is a lot of conjecture in these approaches given the difficulty of isolating all of the physiological variables over years in athletes. And conjecture isn’t sexy at all. So as always, find what works for you.
Just don’t forget to develop and deploy your hiking skill when you need it. No matter who you are, I’d be willing to bet that lurking within your current fitness is a sexy hiking beast.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Amazon.