One Way To Improve Your Climbing? Get Faster

Getting better at climbing just means you need to climb more, right? Maybe not. Here's the science of going uphill.

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Climbing well requires climbing a lot, right?

That is a question that is at the heart of training for most trail runners. And I think a lot of runners come up with the wrong answer.

My answer is that the best climbers are often the fastest runners with just enough specific climbing training to put their speed to work. The reasoning combines research on running economy and biomechanics, mixed together with some anecdotes. In the coaching world, nothing is revolutionary about this theory, but I notice that many trail runners don’t fully buy it since it can be somewhat counterintuitive.

Remember: this is a theory, not a law, with enough fine-print disclaimers that it could be a pharmaceutical advertisement. Also, lots of different things can work for different athletes, so don’t bet the farm on the certainty of this approach working for everyone.

The next year, after spending time in the Colorado mountains, I not only failed to qualify for Team USA, I found myself climbing like an unmotivated hippopotamus. I trained way more, with way more climbing, and I had nothing but slower climbing legs to show for it.

To start, here’s an anecdote that plays out a lot in the trail-running universe (somewhat like the Marvel Universe, but with more spandex). A fast road or track runner starts running on trails and can climb really fast. Gradually, that climbing skill comes back down to Earth a bit as they get further away from their speed. Noticing the decrease in climbing ability, they climb more, thinking it’s about practice. However, their climbing gets slower still.

Now for the M. Night Shyamalan-style twist . . . that story describes me. I made the 2014 U.S. Mountain Running Team in an uphill race while training at sea level in Washington, D.C. The qualifying race climbed 3000 feet, and my biggest training hill was 300 feet. The next year, after spending time in the Colorado mountains, I not only failed to qualify for Team USA, I found myself climbing like an unmotivated hippopotamus. I trained way more, with way more climbing, and I had nothing but slower climbing legs to show for it.

Around that time, I changed my coaching approach based on some of the available research. Running economy on flatter ground took center stage most of the year because it seemed like a variable that could improve over many training cycles, whether an athlete had big mountains to run or not.

That’s not to say that the only way to become a better climber is to get faster. However, for many athletes, a longterm focus on improving level-ground running economy plus enough climbing to prepare for the biomechanical demands of uphill running can make for monstrous climbers. Fortunately for us, some recent studies may back up the anecdotes.

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Multiple studies show correlation between level running economy and uphill running economy.

An October study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology had a somewhat counterintuitive finding: “Economical runners on level surfaces are also economical on uphill and downhill grades.” The authors had 19 trained male runners run at 0%, 7.5% and -5% grades, finding a strong correlation of r = 0.909 between level running economy (LRE) and uphill running economy (URE).

(For those interested, LRE and downhill running economy, or DRE, had a correlation of r = 0.901. Meanwhile, URE and DRE had a correlation of r = 0.830.)

Similarly, a 2017 study in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine found a correlation of r = 0.84 for the running economy of 24 male runners on level ground and 10% grades. The basic findings are that economical level-ground runners make economical uphill runners (and vice versa).

Of note, the steeper grades showed slightly less correlation. Also, the studies were only conducted on male runners, which could have some relevance for whether it can be generalized across sexes.

What does all that have to do with training? To answer that question, we need to look at what flat and uphill running actually entail.

Uphill running involves slightly different biomechanics than level running.

Economy is activity-specific, usually without strong correlations for different modes of exercise, as outlined in a 1984 study from legendary coach Jack Daniels. The October 2018 study reviewed above described the essential point here: “Most people generally think of running as a single mode of exercise, but level, uphill and downhill running have distinctly different biomechanics and muscular actions.” A 2017 review in the journal Sports Medicine laid it all out, with uphill running requiring higher step frequency, more mechanical work, more power output at the joints, and greater muscular activity.

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Anyone who could read through that wall of text without falling asleep likely spotted the contradiction. CONTRADICTION ALERT (that scream was just to wake up those that snoozled):

Uphill running and level running involve different biomechanics, and we know different activities usually don’t have strong correlations in economy. But LRE and URE counter that trend. Why?

The 2018 study authors theorized that the strong correlations were due to study participants having roughly equal practice/exposure to the different terrain types. Even though the study participants were probably not specifically focusing on climbing in training (the specifics of their training programs were not discussed), they got plenty of climbing for URE and LRE to be correlated.

In other words, you don’t need to climb steep mountains all the time to be a good climber. Balanced running training usually accomplishes that on its own.

Long-Term Growth

There is evidence that LRE can improve over long periods of time. For an example, see this article from the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching on Paula Radcliffe’s progression to become the world record-holder in the marathon, when her economy improved massively even as her VO2 max stayed the same. Based on the studies above, it’s likely that her URE improved too. But, if instead she focused her training solely on doing lots of uphill, would her economy have improved longterm in the same way?

That question has no certain answer. To put it another way, there is likely overlap between LRE and URE at any moment in time. We know that it’s possible to improve LRE with longterm training focused on developing speed (that’s the aim of almost all road and track training). But it’s tough to draw the same conclusions about improving URE with longterm training focused specifically on climbing.

The problem is that longterm training interventions are tough to study in a controlled way. Enter stage left . . . our old friend anecdotes.

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The Climbing Paradox

What I have seen as a coach is that if an athlete focuses on climbing at the exclusion of developing speed, they usually slow down longterm. A possible explanation is that most climbing on trails involves obstacles like rocks and turns, reducing power output and possibly mechanical efficiency. In addition, climbing is slower by definition, with greater muscle activity but less forward motion. There may be a cap on how much that can improve before stagnating.

Call it the climbing paradox. Lots of climbing on trails at the expense of balanced training involving running fast and optimizing power output may make for a slower climber over the years.

I used to be a lawyer, so there’s a bunch of that small print to go over. One, this likely applies less at steeper grades and in ultramarathons. Even the studies reviewed above showed less correlation at steeper grades, and it’s possible that 15%+ gradients rely more on movement patterns specific to climbing. Two, even if climbing a ton isn’t essential, you still need to have balanced training, and being unaccustomed to it may result in breakdown in longer events. On top of that, running economy over variable terrain (ups and downs and rocks and roots) might be a different thing entirely.

Putting it Into Practice

In 2017, Jason Schlarb hit a wall. His training focused on tons of vert and hill workouts, leading to some great results in previous years, but he found himself slowing down the further he got away from his speedy background. Maybe it was natural. He was 39, after all.

But Jason didn’t accept that answer. He refocused his training on improving his speed, like he used to do years before, working on his LRE. Rapidly, he noticed his climbing legs returning. While he didn’t measure it in a lab, his training data indicated improved economy at every type of running. At 40, he won the prestigious Run Rabbit Run 100, climbing as fast as ever, primarily from speed-focused training.

Jason still climbed plenty, but he made sure he was comfortable running fast before he emphasized going up. Of course, there are lots of counter-examples too, like Nicole Mericle, who became an obstacle-course racing champion focused primarily on hill intervals.

For your own training, the message is just to remember that longterm speed development can improve climbing ability, but it’s uncertain whether a longterm focus on climbing can improve speed in the same way.

So if you are in a rut this winter, consider trying to improve your 5K or 10K speed. You might just find yourself climbing better than ever in the spring.

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.

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