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What makes a great hiker? I think the answer is… simple and straightforward.
People that read my articles each week may be picking their jaws up off the floor. I’ll find 10 studies to support my position on anti-chafe creams (extremely pro) and minimal shoes (you better check yourself before you wreck yourself). But with hiking, the relative simplicity all comes down to some cool output principles.
Here is a calculator that allows users to input treadmill gradient and speed to find equivalents on flat ground (consider it a rough estimate, since it generally predicts faster flat ground paces than other calculators). Essentially, we’re trying to reverse engineer something like Strava’s “Grade Adjusted Pace” calculator.
Let’s use the calculator for two examples to demonstrate why hiking-specific training may be straightforward for a runner. Both show that even very fast hiking is often lower output than running, other than at exceptionally steep grades.
RELATED: When (and How) to Power Hike
Example 1: 15% gradient, 4 miles per hour
15% is the max gradient setting on many treadmills, and 4 miles per hour is a very strenuous hike at that grade for most people, pushing them to the limit. In the tutorial video below, this is the main setting I use to show how treadmill hiking works.
These inputs equate to around 9 minutes per mile pace on flat ground (and I think this calculator is overly generous). While everyone is different, many athletes that would be straining at 4 miles per hour and 15% grade would have a flat ground pace that would be faster than 9 minutes per mile at the same effort.
Example 2: 6% gradient, 4.5 miles per hour
Now we’re talking a gentler grade, which many athletes would hike in longer races, and 4.5 miles per hour is exceedingly fast hiking. That equates to around 10.5 minutes per mile on flat ground. So as the grade gets shallower, the fastest possible hiking is really offset from the equivalent running demands.
Those examples illustrate that raw output is rarely the limiter in hiking except at very steep mountain grades (see this 2016 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology). Most athletes can put out the amount of power required by their fast hiking relatively easily, and they do it all the time–when they are running. So why can it feel so hard?
The simple answer: it just requires practice.
Here’s how to get better at power hiking for trail running.
Two examples and some disclaimers to get to a simple answer? Sounds about right. Here’s a more complicated version of that simple answer:
Hiking form creates output limitations relative to running, so as long as an athlete is doing some higher-output running training, they can often rapidly improve at hiking by developing their biomechanical proficiency to align the mechanical demands with the metabolic demands.
Profound. If I made fortune cookies, that would be my first inscription.
This all relies on the unique biomechanical strain of hiking.
Proper hiking form is not necessarily intuitive, with a tipped-forward posture, engaged glutes, and active arms. While sustainable running feels relaxed, sustainable hiking can have a sense of urgency the whole time. That biomechanical strain can lead to athletes slowing down or cramping when they don’t hike enough in training, even when the actual output isn’t that high relative to their capabilities.
It can also lead to elevated heart rate, particularly at first. My wife/co-coach Megan and I (check out our podcast!) have done many interventions that show similar patterns–a runner who rarely has to hike in training will do their first treadmill hiking session, and their heart rate will be sky high. One athlete averaged 160 heart rate at 15% grade and 3.8 miles per hour on that first treadmill session, and it made her sore in her low back, glutes, and shins the next day. After a couple weeks, her heart rate was 145 at 15% grade and 4 miles per hour, and with no soreness at all.
The treadmill is our favorite place to practice because it can be faster and more efficient, with no rocks to dodge or anything to think about other than doing some hiking work (and listening to a sweet playlist). And most importantly, there are no downhills, which could increase impact forces and injury risk.
Controversial statement alert: I think that just 20 to 30 minutes of focused treadmill hiking a week can give almost any runner the tools to become a power hiking BOSS, ready to translate that ability to the trails for specific training.
Small print to that statement: Unlocking that ability requires well-rounded running training and consistency and strength work, plus some time spent on trails for specific adaptations.
Practice 3 form tips to start, demonstrated in the video:
1. Glutes (Forward Lean)
I like athletes to imagine that they are mimicking the grade they are approaching. On a 15% grade, think a more pronounced forward lean. On a 4% grade, it will be almost imperceptible. Try to generate power from the glutes, like they are two badass windmills that will mesmerize birds so that they fly into them at full speed.
That last sentence will be my second fortune cookie.
2. Knees (Knee Drive)
Many athletes tend to walk with straight legs. But this isn’t walking, it’s power hiking. In power hiking, you should still bend your knee slightly as your leg pulls through, limiting the angle formed by your tibia and femur to prevent excess energy use. Particularly on very steep hills, you want to feel like you are pawing forward, almost like you are creating imaginary stairs that help you engage those glutes.
3. Arms (Active Swing)
In running, the arm swing is passive, focusing on maintaining posture and limiting energy use. In hiking, the arms can be another chance to generate power. I like athletes to alternate between hands on thighs (using your arms almost as poles that push into the ground with your foot) and a focused swing.
Use that form outside too, viewing every time you hike on a trail run as an opportunity to deploy your secret weapon. Scratch that, your secret weapons. I’m talking about those glutes!
Combine that form with 3 treadmill training principles:
1. General timing
Consider treadmill hiking in the 6-8 weeks before events that will involve substantial hiking time, which should be plenty of sessions to maximize the adaptations. You can also use the treadmill to improve hiking generally if it’s a weakness, or as supplementary cross training.
2. Specific timing
We don’t want hiking to replace much running training. Those running economy adaptations take years, and it’s key not to let intermediate goals get in the way of long-term growth. Instead, Megan and I like athletes to practice treadmill hiking at the end of runs, as doubles, or as cross-training, aiming for two or three stimuli a week totaling 30 to 60 minutes in key training before steep events for athletes that don’t have to hike much in training.
3. Structuring a session
15% grade is a sweet spot where you can focus on maximizing speed, with the added reality that most treadmills don’t go higher. But even if you have a treadmill that goes to 40%, raw output is still going to be limited by the form, so we don’t like athletes to spend excess training stress on practicing extremely steep grades outside of the 4-6 weeks before bonkers mountain races (think the Hardrock 100).
Start at 2-3 miles per hour, remembering that every treadmill is calibrated differently so the exact numbers aren’t that important. Later, if an athlete finds that 15% and 4.2-4.5 miles per hour becomes easy, we’ll have them increase the grade if their machine goes higher. They can also add a weight vest to increase the difficulty once their speed stagnates.
As an addition to a run, 10 minutes works wonderfully. Start at a speed that is manageable, and alternate 1 minute faster with 1 minute easier until those faster speeds become the norm.
As a double, 20 to 30 minutes gets a great adaptation stimulus. Start with a manageable speed, then turn it up, alternating every few minutes. Ideally mix in some steep running practice too, working on the hike-to-run and run-to-hike transitions. Very advanced athletes can do a treadhill running double, tacking on 10-15 minutes of hike/running at the end.
For cross-training, an athlete can go up to an hour with the same protocol. Any more than that risks excess stress without much physiological rationale.
If possible, combine that general skills-building practice with specific training on steep trails that will require slightly different biomechanical patterns, particularly during long runs. As your body gets used to the new demands, you’ll likely see a wildly cool change, even if you never considered yourself a great hiker.
Comfort will go up, speed will skyrocket, and heart rate will go down.
Treadmill hiking can turn a weakness into a superpower.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.