Operating in the UK and the Alps, Run The Wild deliver holidays that combine the sense of ‘team’ from mountaineering, with the thrill of trail running in wild places. Simon is a keen trail runner and marathon runner with a PB of 2hrs 37mins. He is a qualified Leader in Running Fitness as well as International Mountain Leader and offers treks in the Alps.
Running up hill is never easy, it requires a combination of strength, technique and stamina. No amount of running on the flats can prepare you for this energy sapping fight against gravity!
Living out in the Alps has really helped me hone this aspect of my running, in fact it really is all I do out here! Most of the alpine trail races have fearsome amounts of ascent and it’s impossible to simply amble up the hills if you want to get a respectable finish. However, it won’t be possible to run everything, even inefficient to do so, so other than just working on your strength and stamina you need to develop techniques and strategies to deal with each slope you will encounter.
This aspect of trail running and mountain running is gaining in popularity, the ‘Vertical Km’ is already a staple for many race directors and more and more trail runners are realising this challenge has its rewards. Certainly, if you are interested in saving your joints and just pushing your cardio and muscles then this is the type of event for you. Even if it doesn’t float your boat, just as a mountaineer needs to be able to bring to bear many different skills in order to counter what a mountain can throw at him/her without necessarily being a specialist, so does a proficient trail runner, as hills are always on the menu in some shape or form when encountering a running adventure.
This article will give you some ideas on what to think about in both preparing and running uphill as well as some strategies on how to deal with those unrunnable climbs. Let’s take a look:
What’s in the tool box?
So, before we even step up to face the “running up a hill” challenge let’s see what’s on offer in the tool box to give us some help. First, your trail shoes. The better the grip for the trail, the more effective and efficient each step will be. You work hard for each of those strides so make sure you don’t lose any momentum on small slips or slides. A good grippy trail shoe with the right tread for the terrain will see each foot placement hold and save you wasting energy on repeating any of those hard-earned moves. You also may want to think about how you lace your shoe as well, tight lacing around the toes is best avoided and similar to downhill running the grip should be slightly firmer on the bridge of the foot, cutting off the blood to the toes can be quite painful!
Next-up, running poles. If you have a choice, use them. Without doubt they make life easier. Trouble is you may not be allowed to use them. In the UK some trail races do not allow them, and in the Alps often the vertical km races or short length high ascent races do not allow them either, due to the risk of injury to each other on steep, narrow routes. Though, at the moment, a lot of the long-distance races do, like the UTMB. You’ll also be pleased to know that Run the Wild also allows them, in fact we actively encourage them. I’m not going to get into the ethics of whether they should be used, but if they are allowed, use them. Make sure you practise though as if you haven’t then it’s quite easy to get soreness in your elbows (tendonitis) and also it helps to prepare by building up arm strength. They not only provide more stability, they share the work with your legs against gravity and unlike some of the other techniques I’ll discuss below, keep you upright, lungs open and good visibility on the ground ahead. We will look at trail running pole techniques in another article but they are a key technique for uphill running.
There are a handful of techniques that you can use on the hill. What you choose, or are indeed forced to use depends on limiting factors, including the angle of the slope and your personal ability. The stronger you get the more you will be able to run, but there will always be a rubicon to cross, somewhere you have to start walking, scrambling or even climbing to get up the hill. So, what are the limiting factors to you being able to run up hill?
1. Slope angles
This is fundamentally what the fuss is all about! Let’s put this into perspective. A 0 degree slope is flat ground, nine degrees is about the maximum gradient available on a treadmill (15%), 20 degrees is the limit for running very short distances, 30-40 degrees are pisted ski slopes, 50 degrees your hands would touch the ground in front of you and would need to scramble, 90 degrees is a vertical wall! Most people will find three degrees challenging if they are not used to hills, and most runners struggle with more than seven degrees for any sustained period of time! Hence, we are dealing with a narrow band of slopes to be able to run. However, all this will be really dependent on where you are physically, and if you work hard you can push your angle.
Having strong leg muscles, arms and core will help you win the fight against gravity. The muscles in the posterior part of the leg will have to do the most work: glutes, hamstrings and calves. However, also the quads, adductors and abductors will come into play. Since moving up hill, whether walking or running, requires you to lean forwards, you are more up on the balls of your feet (the front of your foot) and so your calves can get a lot of loading. This means you need to think about strength training and also how you manage the loading on your tendons. Don’t forget to strengthen your arms as they will really help with the techniques. The conclusion is that the more hill training you do, the better you will become. However, you will also benefit from strength training in the gym and don’t forget to never increase intensity or volume to reduce risk of injury.
3. Lactic acid threshold
Your body is a machine and moving uphill requires much more effort all round. Oxygen deficits (oxygen need vs availability) shoot up compared to running on flats as you engage at least ten per cent more work in your leg muscles than when on the flat. It’s very easy to start off too quick and suddenly get flushed with lactic acid and have to ease off.