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How to run uphill: the best techniques and benefits

Some runners love it. Others… less so. However, amongst all top athletes and coaches in a variety of sports, running uphill, hill sprints, uphill training - whatever you call it - is known to be one of the most efficient and fastest ways to build up speed and strength. So, how can you get the most out of it?

 

Aside from muscle building, strength and speed, running uphill also helps regulate the cardiovascular system, works difficult-to-train muscles, lengthens calves, promotes running posture - basically all the important things runners need to get ahead, which is why we decided to deep dive in to it all and bring you a shortcut guide on how to love uphill running and have it work best for you.

 

Why running uphill can be a pain. Literally.

Starting off with the “bad” stuff. The major deterrents for people heading out to climb every incline they see are twofold. First off is the fast fatigue that sets in after only a few minutes of running uphill. As any professional athlete will tell you “fatigue is actually your friend.”

By pushing yourself to your maximum (fatigue), you’re telling your body that this is the new normal, therefore the next time, you can go a little further and so on.

Psychologically, running uphill leaves us flat because we wrongly overestimate that we will be able to climb at a comparable speed and distance to how we run on level ground – especially when starting out. It feels like we’re achieving so little for so much effort. The truth is that often people who are looking to try uphill running for the first time choose hills far too steep to train efficiently on. When starting out, as you’ll find out in more detail from the tips below, it’s important to begin with a gentle incline and gradually build to longer, steeper hills. This not only helps you adapt better in the long-term, but helps to overcome the mental hurdle fatiguing too early and too quickly can bring.  

 

 

The second thing that stops people in their uphill-heading-tracks in the thought of the unique muscle soreness that appears in the days after the inclined run. If hill runs aren’t a regular part of your training, then a session on the slope can sideline you in recovery mode longer than your normal run would. This is because of those unique muscle groups uphill running uses, especially the upper quadriceps, the buttocks (of course) as well as those elongated calf muscles. Luckily, just like with any muscle soreness, the right food, stretches and creams can have you back out there in no time, which we’ve done the leg work for you with our 10 techniques and tips below.

 

All uphill from there

Once you start you’ll quickly see those “negative” aspects of running uphill are actually benefits in disguise. More efficient breathing, stronger muscles and mindset, general improvements in endurance are all rewards that await the uphill runner. At the same time, uphill running has also been used to help people returning to sport from injury – especially when it comes to hamstrings, knee and hip recovery as different muscles to “normal” running are engaged. Another of the benefits of running uphill is simply being more race ready for modern competitions.

In the last decade, trail running events worldwide have become increasingly popular for those looking to step away from the “traditional” road marathons and track events.

One aspect of trail running is the unique terrain filled with ups and downs that often levels the playing field (ironically) between those runners who are fast-on-flats and the technical trail running pros. When it comes to these more adventurous races, the person who wins the uphill battle more often than not wins the day.

 

The top 10 techniques and tips to running uphill

1. Run tall

When it comes to mastering the mountain run, many of the same principles as running flat still apply. Chief amongst these rules that people often forget once on the slope is to have a straight body alignment and to “run tall,” that being; eyes forward (not down), shoulders back, hips and knees aligned. Elbows should be bent but allowed to remain neutral as they will be working harder than normal along with your biceps and shoulders/lats. With your body straight, your knees will naturally lift higher to allow for you to climb upwards, and your feet will be doing the angled work that gets you moving in the right direction. 

 

2. Forefoot forward

This is why you see so many sprinters head to the hills for their training. When it comes to running uphill, the greater the incline, the more use of your forefoot for the climb. One of the greatest benefits of running hills is that this is where speed is built for tackling faster flats. Of course, it’s not just sprinters and track runners who benefit from forced forefoot running. Heel strikers - said to be in the majority when it comes to professional long distance runners – need to balance their forefoot training to prevent foot cramping, and so in a long distance trail race, the hills are a welcomed respite from pounding repetition of the pavement.   

 

3. “Quick and light”

Whilst going uphill, naturally, stride rate and length both shorten. The way to best think of how you should stride when heading uphill is “quick and light” – small steps more often. Increasing foot speed isn’t the same as increasing overall speed, and many amateur runners make the mistake to increase their pace right before they hit the incline (a running start up the hill). The problem with this technique is it changes your breathing and shifts running momentum, meaning you tire yourself out even before the real uphill battling begins.

 

4. Start slow and on the stairs

There is an important differentiation to make between stair running and uphill running. Both are valuable, especially when it comes to versatile training plans, however they each serve slightly different purposes. Stair running tends to be done on a greater incline (around 30degrees of angle) compared to natural hill running. The main benefit of stair running is to promote the “quick and light” steps technique. Here, focus on hitting every stair in training while maintaining a normal breathing rate. With this mastered, you naturally promote the right technique for hill running needed to conquer the climb.

 

5. The right shoe stuff

The best shoes for uphill running are those that pack plenty of forefoot cushioning whilst still remaining light. Any help with energy transfer from the touch-down momentum is a bonus when it comes to uphill running shoes, but overall weight is one of the main things to consider when comparing uphill running shoes.

Of course, one thing to remember about hill sprints and uphill training is that what goes up must come down.

This is where too much cushioning can hinder down-hill momentum, so an important balance is needed for the best uphill running shoe to work downhill. See what Australian Xterra Champion trail runner Ben Allen says about finding the perfect uphill/downhill shoe here.

 

The Cloudventure
The lightweight trail running shoe with dynamic cushioning - made for both demanding ascents and wild descents
See more

6. Hit the hills when ready

Once small and quick steps are mastered and the right gear is in check, it’s time to move from the stairs to the hills. The best place to practice uphill running are along uneven forest and mountain trails of gradual incline. The terrain naturally promotes twitch-fiber growth in muscles and the landscape always gives you new routes to run and new foot-falls even when on the “same” run uphill.  

 

7. Grade of the hill: molehills vs mountains

When it comes to training uphill running, it is important to start easy and small, and find the right incline for your level. Too steep, and you’ll fatigue early, which can be deterring to those starting out. The best way forward is to increase your grade gradually, running the same route until you can claim that climb is conquered and move to a new challenge.

 

8. Inside inclines alright

A surge in popularity of incline treadmills has been tied to the positive talk around uphill running in general. If you live in a major city, these incline treadmills may be the only uphill training you have easy access to (except for the local skyscraper’s stairwell). Of course, the major problem with inclined treadmills, much like all treadmills, is the lack of variance when it comes to footfall, making it different to the varied landings of running uphill when out in nature. A good way to combat this “same-sameness” and promote greater overall uphill strength is to combine your inclined treadmill running with alternating stretches on your gym’s stepper machine. The dual engagement of muscles groups helps compound results, adding even more value to a session inside.

 

9. Rest and recovery

There’s no sugar-coating it: hill sprints hurt. To deal with excessive muscle soreness the day of, and after, your hill run training:

  • Be sure to stretch your quads and calves straight after you’re finished training. Straight leg calf stretches and kneeling stretches are your best friends here.
  • Muscle tears need protein to recover, so make sure you eat well after training to help them heal faster. Classics like chicken, rice, egg and protein are easy wins.
  • Showering after your session is a great way to really cut down on soreness the next day. Run your shower 30 seconds hot then 30 seconds cold for 3 minutes over your legs to again help promote a faster recovery. 
  • When all said and done, be sure to wait a few days before running uphill again. Listen to your legs and body and when they feel completely ready, you’re ready.

For even more recovery-specific tips and tricks see our guide to marathon recovery here.

 

10. Making hill running work for you

Whether you’re thinking about your first mountain race, wanting to increase running strength or just looking be a better runner all around, running uphill can simply get you there quicker. The key is to start slowly, practice technique, put in place the tips you’ve picked up here and then simply give it all a try for yourself to see what works for you. In the words of Sir Edmund Hillary – the first person to make the summit of Everest:
It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.

See you up there.