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Running uphill can be pretty darn horrible.
The social-media accounts of professional runners (or even normal people with very short memories) may claim that running up steep grades is “awesome” or “epic.” But no amount of heavily filtered photos can hide the truth: If we were meant to run uphill, we would all weigh 100 pounds and be born in a hut in the Spanish mountains like Kilian Jornet.
So, yes, gravity can be a jerk. But you can make it your friend. A few simple techniques make every uphill a breeze … well, easier.
The main thing to focus on when running uphill is to lean into the ground and use your forward momentum.
First, look down at the ground in front of you (which you should be doing anyway to watch your footing on trails). Second, tilt your center of gravity forward, aiming to mirror the gradient beneath your feet. For example, when on a 10-percent grade, think about leaning 10-percent forward from center. On steeper grades, go even farther forward.
Finally, when running with this technique, think of your legs less as powerful pistons, and more as tools to keep you from falling face-first into the ground. With each step, your momentum while leaning forward will carry you up the mountain—your legs merely keep the forward motion going.
This technique takes practice, but staying too upright is the number-one mistake that most self-proclaimed “bad hill runners” make. Concentrating on leaning forward is the first step to becoming a mountain goat.
Running uphill, tension makes every step harder, forcing you into a hike that much sooner. But relaxing is a simple two-step process. First, and most importantly, focus on letting your leg muscles loosen whenever your leg is not in active contact with the ground. The step-to-step cycle of contract-loosen-contract-loosen will delay accumulation of fatigue in your legs and allow you to push longer.
Second, while leaning forward, concentrate on letting your lower back and arms release tension. A slight forward lean on uphills can immediately be counteracted by a lower back that springs you upright every chance it gets. And flexing arms are using up blood that should be going to your legs and lungs.
Power Hike Strategically
Hiking is the dirty secret of the trail-running world. You almost never see a magazine cover with someone walking. But like pooping, everyone hikes, even the pros!That said, there is often a massive difference between how people hike. And that difference can turn something fast and efficient into a waste of time. So how do you hike with a purpose?
First, as with running uphill, lean forward. Even farther forward. Even farther. Perfect. When power-hiking uphill, you want to feel like you are almost parallel to the ground (even if you are actually not even close).
Second, focus on using your arms. The ideal technique is to place your hands on your quadriceps closer to the hip than the knee. Each time your leg pushes off, use your arm to push down and give you an extra lift.
Finally, alternate uphill running and purposeful hiking for maximum efficiency. Like running uphill, power hiking is hard, and mixing it up will allow you to go farther, faster. A good breakdown is 10 seconds running, 50 seconds hiking, but any mix can work. Adapt to the terrain, hiking on steeper gradients, and running on flatter ones.
As for when you should start hiking, that is a personal choice based on your fitness level and background. Experiment with what works for you. Some people should be hiking whenever the trail goes up; others might never need to hike unless the trail almost requires rock-climbing ropes. A good rule of thumb for long runs or races is to hike any hill when you cannot see the top.