Most runners don’t love hills; some even hate running hills. I honestly don’t enjoy them, but consider them a “necessary evil.” Why? Because there are solid benefits for running hills, which I will touch on below. But, the primary focus of this post is to give some tips on how to run uphill, and yes, downhill. The HOW is important, so you get the most gain from the work, become faster, and decrease the odds of injury with poor running form/strategy on hills.
Uphill Running Benefits
- Hill running improves your muscular strength and power (you’re legs can provide more force, more quickly)
- Gives a cardiovascular boost
- Can help improve running form and neuromuscular fitness (how your nervous system/muscles communicate)
Granted, running uphill is typically a greater challenge than the downhill! But, downhill running also is its own unique “workout,” and provides some benefits, too.
Downhill Running Benefits
- Increases/improves foot speed
- Makes your more efficient runner
- Increases range of motion
Essentially, hill running (the up, and down) makes you a faster, healthier and stronger runner. Yet, there are some things to keep in mind in terms of form and strategy. For some reason, running form, and our mojo on hills can often “fall apart,” and we don’t want that.
How to Run Uphill
Lean into the hill. It’s not what most runners think. It’s not uncommon for a runner to flex at the waist when going uphill. Unfortunately, that’s not where the lean should be. It’s from the ankles, with the entire body at a slight lean forward (again from the ankles).
Separate from that, there isn’t a lot of variance from your typical running form! Yes, your stride rate/length likely will change (shorter stride), but these good form tenants remain sound with how to run uphill as well…
Key Points Uphill Form
- Look forward, not down.
- Align your major joints from ground up (ankles, hips, shoulders, head).
- Pump your arms to drive your knees, but do so with relaxed shoulders and arms.
- Maintain your cadence (steps per minute). This will require some focus and effort with the increased muscle work and elevation gain. Again, your stride length will shorten on the uphill, and that’s okay.
How to Run Downhill
You might think this is an unnecessary topic – running downhill is the “easy” part. Not exactly. Some common mistakes with the downhill portion can set you up for a greater chance of injury.
What to avoid:
- Leaning back with a foot strike further out in front. Here, you are essentially “braking” and putting greater stress on your joints, and quadricep muscles.
- Running full throttle with little thought to form and your arms/legs flailing about. Of course, this makes little sense, and puts more stress on your quads.
Key points downhill form:
- Keep your feet beneath you, not landing far out front. Keep them also close to the ground, and land lightly (no “slapping”).
- Attempt to keep a stride and effort that’s similar to the balance of your run.
- Lean slightly forward (again from ankle); don’t lean back!
- Keep cadence quick with little foot ground contact time. (Think quicker turnover vs a longer stride.
- Stay in control. Keep your stride slightly shortened and let your turnover increase. When you feel in control, gradually lengthen your stride.
Strategy for Uphill and Downhill Running
- Accept the variance in pace with uphill and downhill running. Yes, it stinks to see a slower pace as you’re heading up the hills. You think, all this effort, and I’m running no faster? Do your best not to fall into that trap. This is especially critical with your long run!
- The key is to focus on consistent effort versus a consistent pace on hilly terrain. If you have a heart rate monitor, that will help you gauge your effort fairly accurately. Although your heart rate will increase on the uphill, it shouldn’t jump dramatically.
- If your heart rate does increase significantly (and you notice you’re huffing/puffing), that’s a good sign you’re trying to hold your pace, versus maintaining effort. Running uphill too quickly not only increases your heart rate too much, but the rapid breathing makes you more prone to dreaded side-stitches.
BOTTOM LINE: your mindset, form and strategy with how to run uphill (and downhill) has a big impact on your success as a runner. As best you can, don’t let the hills affect the rhythm of your run – an even effort throughout (and not pace) is key!