It is the part of a race that is most spoken about in the lead up.
As an experienced runner, it is the part that you are quizzed about most regularly.
As a beginner runner, it is the part that wakes you up at night in a cold sweat.
Ascending hills or mountains in a race, particularly in trail races can be the making or breaking of a good performance.
The way we approach the climbs in training, interestingly, is generally quite different to how we tackle them in a race situation.
I like to apply the principle of “Sweat in training, so you don’t bleed in battle”. In other words, work hard on your climbs in training, run a lot of the up’s and always push them hard, but in the race take them conservatively and use more efficient ways of moving than running.
Anyone who knows me, has been coached by me or has used one of my programs will know that I love to include hard hill workouts. There is no denying that they bring results. There are an endless number of ways you can use hills to develop different components of your fitness and for a trail runner, this is the key ingredient in the recipe that brings so many of the gains.
When it comes to race day though, the goal is to use the banked hard work in combination with efficient movement to give you a solid but sustainable pace as you ascend.
Generally speaking, a forced march or fast hike is going to be the best way to climb a steep hill. This of course depends on the gradient but in some cases if your fitness allows, running (shuffling) can be the best way to climb. For the most part though, the fast hike with good form will get you to the top without you blowing up, and it will set you up for a fast recovery.
Good form for the fast hike includes getting your upper body forward over your hips, keeping your spine relatively straight and using your gluteals to drive you forward. A higher cadence with shorter stride length will be more efficient than long powerful strides. Depending on the steepness of the climb you may also be using your hands on your thighs to push off each leg. Head position is an often overlooked factor, keeping your head up and eyes looking forward and not down is important. There are two reasons; keeping the head up engages your posterior chain (muscles and connective tissue that extends down the back of your body) which makes your glutes, hamstrings and calves more efficient, but psychologically keeping your eyes up the hill helps you focus on the forward progress and not just your feet as they trudge upward.
Hiking poles are becoming more and more commonly used and while they may look a little odd to the newbie trail runner, many of the elites train and race with poles.
There is research to show that the use of poles can decrease load on the stance leg but up to 20%. It is worth noting however that caloric expenditure can increase by up to 46% also. So that means using poles can save your legs a lot of work and reduce impact, but you’ll need to increase your energy/fuel intake to offset the extra work being done by your arms.
So hit the hills hard in training, but when it comes to racing, respect them for energy suckers that they are and simply get up them with as little effort as possible. If you can get to the top and still have juice in the tank, you’ll be able to make up considerable ground on your competition on the flats and down hills. To learn how to tackle the down hills safely and quickly, read THIS.