Here’s what you need to know about running up and downhill.
Unless you do all of your running on a treadmill or track, at some point you’ll find yourself going up and down hills. That’s good: running hills has many benefits, no matter what level of runner you are. Below we’ll look at why you should incorporate hills into your running, the right form to use when running up and down hills, and the best way to make use of hills in races. Although some runners are naturally better at running uphill, and some find their forte is speeding downhill, everyone can improve how they handle both types of slopes.
Benefits of Hill Running
The best runners in the world run hills all the time, both in their daily training and in specific hill workouts. Among the reasons:
- Hills can improve your running form by increasing knee lift, joint mobility and neuromuscular fitness (how well your nervous system communicates with your muscles).
- Hills improve muscular strength (your legs’ ability to produce force) and power (the ability to produce a lot of force quickly).
- Hills provide an added cardiovascular boost.
We’re not talking just uphill running here. Learning how to run dowhill efficiently can:
- improve your foot speed;
- increase your range of motion;
- make you a smoother, more efficient runner on any terrain;
- reduce your risk of injuries as you become adept at not crashing into the ground.
Of course, getting better at running up and down hills will also help you in any race with hills.
How to Run Uphill
You may have heard that the best way to get to the top is to “lean into the hill”. That doesn’t mean bending your torso at a 90-degree angle.
“Just as you shouldn’t lean forward from the waist when running on flat terrain, you don’t want to lean from the waist on hills,” says Pete Magill, a running book author and US masters record-holder. Imagine that you’re running on flat terrain, Magill says, and adopt a stride perpendicular to that terrain. “This will naturally result in a slight forward lean on the actual uphill terrain,” Magill says, with the lean coming from your ankles.
The key to climbing efficiently is to use your normal running form as much as possible. Of course, your stride length and stride rate will change, depending on the grade and length of the hill (and, on trails, the footing). But the essentials remain the same as when running on flat ground:
- Think about “running tall”, with your head, shoulders, hips, and ankles aligned.
- Look ahead rather than down.
- You’ll use your arms more as you lift your knees, but keep your shoulders and arms relaxed, and the insides of your wrists passing near your waist.
“You need your knees to pop up with each stride, and you need to maintain your stride rate,” says Magill. “If you lean into the hill too much, you put too much pressure on both your quadriceps and, especially in the case of a steeper hill, your calves. We get a lot of power from our glutes and hamstrings, so you don’t want to sideline them by using a stride that emphasizes pushing at the expense of that foot strike.”
Emily Harrison, a coach who has won trail ultramarathons and run a 2:32 road marathon, says to stay mindful of stride rate. “When I think about increasing my cadence, it may not in reality be changing much, but it’s a good cue to keep me light on my feet and to not fall into bad habits,” she says. “I like to cue myself to think ‘powerful’ going up a hill.”
“Your stride length will naturally shorten, both as a result of gravity and of the ground rising to meet each foot strike,” says Magill. “That’s okay. Don’t waste energy trying to maintain your normal stride length.”
How to Run Downhill
There are two common – and contradictory – mistakes runners make on downhills. Some lean back and brake, which greatly increases impact forces on your joints and causes you to slow. Others take the opposite approach, flailing down the hill out of control (and causing unnecessary muscle damage in the quadriceps).
Instead, “try to maintain a stride and effort that’s consistent with the rest of your run,” says Magill. “Allow for either a slightly faster cadence or a slightly longer stride length, and probably a little of both.”
On gradual to moderate downhills, imagine that you’re running on the flat, and aim to keep your centre of gravity perpendicular to the ground. Doing so results in a slight forward lean (again, from the ankles, not from the waist). “Focus on a quick cadence and spending as little time as possible on the ground,” says Harrison. “Be sure you’re landing underneath your body and not out in front of yourself.”
On more intense downhills, Magill says, “you’ll need to find the sweet spot between forward lean and braking based upon your own fitness and experience. Whatever you do, don’t go springing out into the air and dropping that extra 5cm with each stride.” If a downhill is so steep that you’re concerned about falling, shorten your stride and decrease your cadence.
How to Race Uphill
In the age of the GPS watch, it can be hard not to constantly focus on your pace when racing. Doing so is often not the best approach, especially when running uphill.
In his masters thesis on marathon pacing, Olympian Jared Ward found that runners who tried to maintain even pace on the rolling St. George Marathon course were less likely to attain a Boston Marathon qualifying time than those whose pace varied with changes in topography. Similarly, although the winners of the Boston Marathon often run close to even splits for the two halves of the famously up-and-down course, their KM splits can have significant differences, depending on the presence of hills. Instead of trying to keep an even pace uphill, focus on maintaining an even effort.
Another common mistake: backing off as soon as you reach the top of a hill. “Continue your forward momentum once you crest the hill,” says Harrison.
Harrison says too many runners are too aggressive on hills early in a race. “You want to keep the hills honest, but you also don’t want to cross the redline too early in your race,” she says.
How to Race Downhill
Ward’s thesis on runners at the St. George Marathon found that Boston qualifiers were more likely to run the downhill portions faster. But as any Boston Marathon vet who has pushed the first half of that course can tell you, there’s a balance between taking advantage of the downhills and ruining your race.
“Downhill running significantly increases the intensity of eccentric muscle contractions in the quads,” says Magill. In an eccentric contraction, a muscle lengthens as it’s contracting, causing stress that can lead to almost instantaneous soreness. Focusing on maintaining your effort level on downhills will naturally lead to running faster with less risk of overdoing it.
If you know you’ll be racing a course with a lot of downhill sections, practise running fast downhill from four weeks to two weeks before the race. Your quadriceps will probably get a little sore from those sessions, but they’ll gain some immunity to race-day muscular damage.
In general, says Magill, “always pay attention to your body’s feedback on a hill. If your fatigue level is starting to increase at a significant rate, back off immediately. Runners sometimes believe they’ll get a second wind after an uphill, or that downhill fatigue can be ignored as long as their pace isn’t suffering. Not true. Both will come back to bite you – to the point that the level part of the run after the hill will feel like, well, a hill.”