Below are five practical run technique tips for approaching your hill sessions. Hills obviously vary in gradient, so here are some general tips for you to go out and try!
1) Select the correct gear
I’m not talking about running footwear, or your choice of technical apparel! On a bike, with a long steady climb ahead, you’ll probably want to choose a gear which enables you to keep your legs turning at a steady rate, with a consistent level of effort being spent from bottom to top. Choose too big a gear and you’ll end up dropping your cadence and trying to grind the hill out obviously your heart-rate and effort level will rocket.
Instead keep your cadence high in a gear that feels relatively sustainable for the duration of the hill. The same can be done for running!
Think of ‘cadence’ as stride frequency (same thing), and ‘gear selection’ as your stride length. If you run up the hill with too big a stride, as many do, you’ll drop your cadence as you fatigue quickly. Instead, shorten your stride, and increase your stride frequency (cadence). You won’t feel like you’re powering up the hill in the same way.
2) Lift your legs
As you run uphill, even more emphasis is put on the swing phase of your running form.
Do your thigh muscles burn after a few reps of running up hill?
If so, it’s possible that you’re one of the many runners who are inherently thigh and hip flexor dominant using the strong anterior chain muscles, driving the knee forwards and up onto the next step uphill. Of course, these anterior muscles are meant to provide much force at the hip the drive the knee forwards. However, they’re not particularly efficient at doing this without the help of the Hamstrings Ideally the Hamstrings will act to help flex the knee a little (degree is dependent on pace or gradient or run). This creates a shorter lever arm at the hip, resulting in less torque needed to at the hip to produce flexion.
Simply put: lifting your foot a little with each step uphill – kind of like you were stepping over something – will reduce load on your Quads and Hip Flexors, by activating your Hamstrings. Try it yourself: Find a steady hill and first run up with a low foot carry. Now try again, lifting the foot slightly higher as you bring it off the ground.
3) Use your arms
Uphill – many runners seem to either not use their arms at all, or if they do, they direct all the forces in the wrong direction! As you run uphill, keep the arms comfortably bent at the elbow to around 900 and relaxed. Forcefully drive the point of your elbow backwards with each arm swing. The more intensity you’re running with, the harder the drive. Keep the arms moving quickly to help maintain a quick running cadence for the legs.
Downhill – while the use of the arms in running up hill is all about propulsion. Running downhill often requires use of the arms for increased balance, especially as the gradient and speed increases. Keep your left hand to the left of your body, and your right hand to the right, rather than allowing the hands to cross the body. We don’t want excessive rotation. However, you may find it useful to flare the elbows out to the sides away from your body as you descend significant hills at pace.
4) Run tall and look ahead
You’ll see it at almost every race – the runner who, through fatigue, becomes more ‘bent over’ as the hill progresses. Instead be aware of your posture. Staying tall maintains your ability to use your Gluteus and Hamstrings in particular to power you up hill through stance phase of your running gait pattern. I like the cue of ‘hold your hips high‘as a focus point to encourage good posture. Looking at the floor immediately ahead of you will only cause you to drop your head forward. If you need to check the upcoming terrain, get your head up and watch the ground 30-40 feet ahead of you. If not, try focusing on the crest of the hill.
5) Use your hill sessions as technique sessions
Your hill running workouts, when performed correctly, will not only provide excellent strength and speed benefits, they will brilliantly develop good movement patterns for running with good form on the flat. I usually encourage runners not to approach hill sessions as a killer session, but instead to stop when technique fails.
As you get stronger, you’ll be able to hold good form for longer.