The Ups and Downs of Hill Running

IPR  You have seen them many times; Approaching the top of the hill, trudging along, panting loudly, slouched over at the waist, shoulders swinging from side to side, head like a bobble head doll, this runner is in total agony. Reaching the peak, they let out a huge sigh of relief and begin the descent with long slow strides, heel striking well in front of their body, leaning back to slow down, hoping to catch their breath after the climb. Well, DON’T BE THAT PERSON! Don’t be the person who dreads any run that has elevation gain. Don’t fear the hills on your run. Make them your friends and allies by learning to go up and down efficiently and quickly.

 

Hill running is an acquired skill that can give you an edge on courses that others avoid or slowly suffer through. The first thing to do is to adopt the mindset that even though a hilly course will likely slow you down some, there are ways to minimize just how much you slow down. Once you do this you will have the confidence to take advantage of the hills and use them to your advantage over your competitors.

 

Of course, you must train on hills to fully develop these techniques, so first find a hill that you can regularly use in your training regimen. This should be long enough that you are climbing or descending steadily for a few minutes from bottom to top (or reverse). Even when I lived in pancake flat south Florida we had causeway bridges over the waterways to run on, so you should be able something suitable. You can incorporate the hill(s) into your regular runs or set up a hill repeat session to be done on a regular basis. Once you have your hill it is time to work on your technique. Here are some tips that I have used through the years and try to instill in my athletes.

 

UP

 

When running up a hill, especially a long climb, focus on the top. Keep your “eyes on the prize”, and imagine a force drawing you to the top of the hill. Feel it. Really…..feel it.

 

Keep your posture upright with a slight forward lean, but don’t bend from the waist, and have all of your body movements, arm swing and foot push off, directed to the top of the hill.

 

Minimize upper body rotation and head movement.

 

Maintain a high knee swing to produce a higher landing point as your body moves forward and up the hill. Combine this with a strong push off to generate more force to move you up and forward.

 

Visualize a hand at the base of your spine, pushing your hips up and forward. This will help to prevent bending at the waist by leading with your hips.

 

Maintain leg turnover. Keep the legs moving, even if your stride has to shorten a bit to do so.

 

Monitor your breathing and heart rate. Don’t blow up and lose form and stamina.

 

Once you reach the summit of your climb, carry through and push right into the downhill. Now is not the time to rest. Gravity will help you recover while you are moving down the other side.

 

DOWN

 

Okay, now you’re at the top and it’s time to go down. Don’t be a slacker…this is where you can really make up some time and finisher places. One of my favorite ways to do some of my long runs in training has been to run up one of the canyons here in Boulder County. I pace the session to maintain zone 3 heart rate for anywhere from 5-10 miles going up. Then…..turn around and hold the same heart rate going back down. No rest for the wicked. This is a training drill, but the point is that one can go fast and even recover on the downhills.

 

Effective downhill running involves some technique changes. The risk of injury is high, especially if one tries to go fast without making some modifications to their flat land running form.

 

First and foremost, lower your center of gravity slightly, putting yourself in a position where it is impossible to completely straighten your legs and lock your knees. Nothing will shorten your running life like hammering down a hill and jamming your knees on every footstrike.

 

Don’t overstride and put on the brakes with a foot strike that lands downhill from your body. If you look straight down, your foot should disappear under your body an instant before it hits the ground.

 

Control your speed by adjusting your forward lean. More lean, go faster. Too fast, straighten up. Make these adjustments as necessary, depending on the pitch of the hill.

 

Raise your arms, if needed, and use them for balance. I, sometimes, just lift my elbows and keep my arm swing moving, like chicken wings. Still, avoid upper body rotation

 

The majority of leg movement is under and behind you, using a strong push off and kick.

 

Increase your leg turnover speed. Keep those legs moving. Again, shorten your stride if necessary. Don’t just lope along. This is free speed with gravity on your side.

 

In conclusion, one can learn to make hills a weapon rather than an obstacle. Practice and develop your technique to increase speed, reduce effort, and minimize potential for injury. Don’t wait. Start today.

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