Whether you’re a runner who chooses to embrace hills or curse them, learning to run them well can make you stronger and more efficient.
Understanding how to tackle hills physically and mentally is a skill that can be improved with time and focus. Downhill and uphill running each have their own set of challenges, but improving your technique can go a long way toward making both a better experience.
While downhill running may seem the easier option of the two, long or steep descents can be taxing and leave you with a nasty case of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) if you’re not prepared.
If you have an upcoming race with a lot of descent, it’s essential to practice running downhill. Focusing on form and turnover and relaxing into the hill helps you improve your downhill running and keeps your quads happier.
FOCUS ON FORM
When running downhill, it’s essential to let your core do some of the work rather than just your legs. If you’re not already doing core and strength training in addition to your running, now is the time to get started. While it’s tough to actively think about engaging your core while running downhill fast, shifting your gaze helps put your body in a position to make you more efficient.
Think about focusing your gaze further down the hill (at least 6–8 feet) rather than staring downward at your feet. This can be a tough habit to break, especially if you’re on a technical trail, but looking ahead allows your body to stretch up taller and engage the muscles in your core to help support you more effectively.
PRACTICE QUICK TURNOVER
The steeper the hill, the easier it is to forget about form altogether and either bomb or brake down the hill while overstriding and pounding your heels into the ground. Instability and poor form can leave you at risk for excessive soreness and eventually lead to injury.
When you’re running downhill, think about keeping your stride short and increasing your cadence. Try to land lightly and keep your feet moving. A mid- to forefoot landing is ideal and happens more naturally as you run tall and actively think about your feet landing underneath you rather than out in front of you.
RELAX AND FLOW
While the idea of “relaxing into the hill” is more of a mental technique than a physical one, this concept can help in both areas. Try to keep your breathing steady and rhythmic, allowing your legs to follow that rhythm.
Even if you don’t feel very light on your feet, think about “dancing lightly” down the hill with quick, efficient steps and a relaxed body to make the experience more enjoyable. Once your brain latches onto this image, your body begins to follow!
Running uphill is as much of a mental challenge as a physical challenge, but hills make you a stronger runner when including them as a regular part of your training routine.
Hills are best tackled by effort, rather than pace. As with downhill running, good form in both your upper and lower body is essential.
Runners often feel they should “lean into the hill” as they are running up it. While your body should have a slight forward lean, this cue can encourage runners to lean excessively from the waist which makes your uphill running less efficient.
As you run up a hill, continue to think about staying long and tall. Similar to downhill running, keep your eyes focused ahead of you toward the top of the hill. This helps reduce your natural inclination to look downward and hunch over, especially as the hills get steeper.
FOCUS ON THE PUSH-OFF
Good form is just as essential to uphill running, but the techniques vary slightly. Unlike running downhill, you’ll rarely overstride or land hard on your heels.
Instead, think about driving your legs back behind you as you run up a hill. You can minimize any wasted side-to-side motion by keeping your arms pumping forward and back, rather than across your body. Use your arms to help drive you forward, but try to keep their swing relaxed as tension can also use excessive energy.
MAINTAIN YOUR EFFORT (NOT YOUR PACE)
This technique is both mental and physical. Trying to maintain an even pace while running up and down long or steep hills will likely be frustrating (or a poor pacing strategy in a race). Running uphill is a great time to focus on effort rather than the numbers on your watch. Maintaining an even effort over the hills on a long route or race allows your paces to balance out naturally and ultimately makes you faster!
Mastering uphill and downhill running is critical to healthy, enjoyable training and racing. Get out there and practice these techniques to get more efficient and enjoy the hills.