If you’re planning to tackle a trail race this summer — like one of the Under Armour Mountain Running Series races — going uphill is a necessary evil. Trail runs, by nature, are almost never flat and most involve pretty intense ups and downs. So prepping for a race means adding hills to your routine, even if that means your average minutes-per-mile drops to accommodate those climbs.
Former track star and current Under Armour athlete Sarah Cotton made the switch to ultra-running only a couple of years ago and had a lot to learn about flowing up and down trails after already running for hours. “Running uphill is the number 1 best cardiovascular exercise or workout that you can get for your body without impacting your muscles a ton for recovery. It’s so good for that,” says Kaci Lickteig, a former Western States 100-miler winner and ultra-running physical therapist. Check out top tips from her and Cotton for uphill success.
SLOW YOUR BREATHING
“When I started running a lot more in the mountains, the biggest thing that I noticed is that your heart rate elevates a ton when you run uphill and that can make you start to panic,” says Cotton. “You’re going up a hill, your heart rate shoots up and you’re thinking you shouldn’t be breathing that hard. So the biggest thing is to try to calm your breathing down as much as possible, but be OK with your heart rate going up and not letting that panic you. Trying to stay calm is the biggest thing.”
TAKE A HIKE
If you’re new to running, uphills can be extremely challenging, and it may be impossible to keep your breathing calm and heart rate in a reasonable zone. So rather than pushing beyond your limits, add hiking into your regular runs. Do a normal mile or two run to get to an extremely uphill trail and then hike the trail. Each time you go up, try to get a bit faster, pushing the pace on any flatter sections. Gradually, you’ll build to running, but when it comes to hills, take your time easing into the practice.
ADD STEP-UPS TO YOUR GYM ROUTINE
You should be strength training, especially if you’re a trail runner, since you’re often using more muscle to make it over obstacles than you might as a road runner. So, when you’re hitting the gym, incorporate heavy lifts like squats (Lickteig’s favorite) but also incorporate box step-ups into your routine to make getting over obstacles on the trail easier. Use a roughly knee-height step or box, and just run through a series of step-ups, focusing on lifting your leg straight up to make the step, versus turning your hip out to the side. (If you need to twist at the hip, your hips are likely too tight — add some mobility to your daily routine!)
PRACTICE GOOD POSTURE
“Make sure you’re not collapsing your chest: Maintain a good, upright posture. Keep your eyes looking up toward the top of the hill and emphasize driving your knees and your arms,” says Lickteig. “You really want to focus on doing that, and it will lead you into a good hip/knee posture and gait.”
Sadly, you’re going to have to get a little boring by adding hill repeat workouts to your routine. Once a week, find a local hill — preferably on a trail — and do a few reps up and down. “Get out and do hill repeats: That’s the only way to get better and more efficient at going uphill,” says Cotton. And practice good form!”
… BUT DON’T DO UP- AND DOWNHILL REPEATS TOGETHER
Lickteig cautions against using your uphill and downhill repeats at the same time. Because downhill running is a heavy load on your muscles, you should avoid doing both in the same workout. Use the downhills as recovery, either running slowly and carefully or even walking down. Your best strategy might be to find a tough uphill that’s looped with a gradual downhill — often, that looks like a straight up-and-down hill, and then a switchback-filled trail to make it back down.
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