"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hill Running Technique (part 2 of 3)

People tend to think that there's no skill involved in running - that, unlike perfecting a golf swing, it's pretty much just putting one foot in front of another. This post will try to detail the nuances of hill running technique that come usually without thought and through practice. Anyone who's seen my ungainly running style will be surprised that I've ever thought about it.


Running uphill requires one to shorten one's stride; if trying to keep a steady pace, it requires an increased cadence. Taller runners often overstride on uphills, which leads to muscle fatigue. One should push off with the back foot, rather than reaching with the front one.

Uphills require increased knee lift, compared to flat ground, just to keep one's toes from catching the angle of the hill.

The arms are used to drive uphill, especially if one is reduced to walking. Fast arm motions increase stride rate and shorten stride almost automatically. Elbows should be tucked in close to the body and the arms swing more from the elbow and less from the shoulder.

Lean forward to keep your center of gravity correct, keeping perpendicular to the flat ground at the bottom of the hill. To do this, bend at the hips, not at the waist, or one will stress back muscles; this requires flexible hamstrings. Focusing uphill, not at one's feet will aid in keeping the back straight.

Hills have a crest, so the top usually flattens out and one increases the rhythm of steps near the top to take advantage of this. Some runners pause at the top of hills, so it's a good idea to practice running past the top of the hill, which effectively makes it a longer hill.


On downhills, arms are used mostly for balance, rather than for driving forward. The elbows are held out from the body, arms carried lower than on the uphill. On steep hills, the elbows may be well behind the torso (the weight of the arms acting as a counterbalance), the arms pumping as in tricep curls.

One should land on the heel or flat-footed, to avoid snagging roots or rocks with the toes. Landing on the heels tends to cause overstriding and increases the landing shock to muscles and joints, so one should land with the knee kept slightly bent and one should roll forward on one's plant foot and "pop" off quickly. Too long of a stride causes a loss of balance and can lead to a fall.

Lean slightly backward (again, keeping perpendicular to flat ground) to keep an even speed. Digging in the heels and taking shorter steps allows one to brake without stressing the quadriceps; short steps require faster strides. The idea is to let gravity do the work, to "flow" down the hill, but to keep in control.

Near the bottom of a long steep hill, the ground flattens out and one can take more advantage of the "free speed" of the downhill without undue risk. The higher one lifts the knee, the longer one's step and the faster one moves.
No one thinks much about these things when running, of course, or all the fun would go out of it, but occasionally focusing on one aspect during a hill workout will help a poor hill runner become better.


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Thanks. I hadn't thought about a lot of this stuff, but it makes sense and I intend to try it.

Jean said...

I am a terrible hill runner, especially on downhills. I had not considered a lot of these techniques. These have been extremely informative posts, Steve. Thanks!

Jogger said...

I need this, thanks!

Carl Gammon said...

I certainly agree with the uphill comments. The Run to the Sun on Maui is 36 miles from sea level to 10,000 feet, with the final 26 miles ALL uphill. You train to shorten your stride and increase cadence. (And to always run when the buses of tourists can see you.)

Another reason to land on the heels on downhills is to avoid jamming the toes and getting those black toenails.