Expert tips to help you boost your uphill efficiency
For the better part of my running career, I’ve dreaded running uphill. Without fail, any major incline left me gasping for breath—leg muscles on fire, my ego crushed, stepping off the trail again and again to let others pass me. I accepted this limitation as an immutable part of myself for years before a few friends finally talked me into tackling my weakness head on. I learned that uphill running is a skill that can be cultivated and improved with a bit of dedicated effort.
Here are a few pro tips to get you started.
Embrace Good Form
One of the biggest errors runners make is hinging forward excessively from the waist, straining the hips and lower back, inhibiting deep breathing, and reducing the hamstrings’ ability to generate power. Focus instead on engaging your core and leaning slightly forward from your ankles, which helps enlist gravity to propel you forward. Kim Dobson, four-time Pikes Peak Ascent winner and course-record holder, likes to visualize herself floating lightly up hills. "Proper uphill form requires one to stay relaxed (especially the upper body), use a powerful arm swing, good upright posture, and minimal bouncing or bobbing," she says.
For Salomon athlete Max King, maintaining a “nice tall posture, quick turnover with a short stride, and good arm pumping from hip to sternum” has helped him win trail, ultra, and obstacle races at every distance, including the competitive, all-uphill Broken Arrow Vertical Kilometer in 2016.
In particular, shortening your stride—that is, keeping your footfalls directly beneath your center of gravity, rather than “reaching” ahead with your leading foot—can help prevent muscle strains and unnecessary spikes in your heart rate. This approach conserves energy and ultimately boosts your running economy.
Run Short Uphill Intervals
Contrary to the primarily aerobic efforts involved in slow, easy trail running, uphill running nearly always kicks our anaerobic energy system into gear. If you don’t work on strengthening this system, your lungs, heart, and leg muscles will be screaming for oxygen every time you hit a hill. A little work goes a long way.
One of Dobson’s favorite uphill running workouts is a set of four-minute uphill intervals on an eight to ten percent grade at near max effort, with an easy jog back down for rest between each interval. Start with a two-mile warm-up including light strides, and conclude with a two-mile cool down. Dobson recommends doing this workout once a week for six to eight weeks, beginning with four repetitions the first week, five the next, and six in the weeks thereafter.
Run Long, Sustained Uphills
Of course, many trail runs or races involve much longer uphill grinds than just four minutes’ worth. So, in addition to the anaerobic power that running fast hill intervals requires, both King and Dobson emphasize the importance of slower, aerobic uphill training runs. As King points out, “A good sustainable pace is crucial for climbing long gradual hills and not blowing yourself too early in a race.”
Another of Dobson’s favorite workouts is the progressive long run—a route of 6-12 miles with as much elevation gain as possible. After 1-2 miles of easy jogging, run the first section at an easy effort, the second section at a moderately hard effort, and the final section at a very hard effort. Jog 1-2 miles to cool down.
Practice Power Hiking
Efficient power hiking is a trail runner’s secret weapon. Often, uphill trails are so steep or sustained that power hiking can actually prove more efficient than trying to maintain even a slow running cadence. “I've noticed that most, if not all, good climbers come from a background of hiking a lot of vert,” says King.
With enough practice, your power-hiking pace may well exceed your uphill running one—improving your speed while also conserving energy and letting your “running muscles” actually recover on uphills, rather than get depleted even further. Keeping a straight back (again, not hinging forward at the waist), you can press your palms onto the tops of your thighs for additional leverage and power.
If you don’t live within easy access to long, sustained uphills, use a Stairmaster machine, run stadium stairs, or power walk on a treadmill set at a 15-percent incline for one to two hours once a week. I used the treadmill technique to help me train for my first 50-miler, the White River 50, which sports two massive hill climbs totaling 8,700 feet of elevation gain. (It paid off; I crossed the finish at a respectable 7th place.)
Work Those Glutes
Uphill running asks a lot from certain muscles, especially your glutes, as well as your hamstrings, quads, calves, core muscles, and hip flexors. Incorporating some dedicated strength training or plyometric exercises that target these muscles groups can help delay or reduce their fatigue on the trails. “Step-ups are great,” says King. “Deadlifts are crucial. Work those glutes.”
Looking for more runner-specific exercises? Check out these eight that will change the way you run.