Technique

  • How to Run Uphills Quicker
  • Running Through Mud
  • Descending Technique
  • How to use Running Poles

How to Run Uphills Quicker

Running up hill is never easy, it requires a combination of strength, technique and stamina. No amount of running on the flats can prepare you for this energy sapping fight against gravity! Living out in the Alps has really helped me hone this aspect of my running, in fact it really is all I do out here! Most of the alpine trail races have fearsome amounts of ascent and it’s impossible to simply amble up the hills if you want to get a respectable finish. However, it’s probably it won’t be possible to run everything, even inefficient to do so, so other than just working on your strength and stamina you need to develop techniques and strategies to deal with each slope you will encounter. This aspect of trail running and mountain running is gaining in popularity, the ‘Vertical Km’ is already a staple for many race directors and more and more trail runners are realising this challenge has its rewards. Certainly, if you are interested in saving your joints and just pushing your cardio and muscles then this is the type of event for you. Even if it doesn’t float your boat, just as a mountaineer needs to be able to bring to bear many different skills in order to counter what a mountain can throw at him/her without necessarily being a specialist, so does a proficient trail runner, as hills are always on the menu in some shape or form when encountering a running adventure. This article will give you some ideas on what to think about in both preparing and running uphill as well as some strategies on how to deal with those unrunnable climbs. Let’s take a look:

WHAT'S IN THE TOOL BOX?

So, before we even step up to face the “running up a hill” challenge let’s see what’s on offer in the tool box to give us some help. First, your trail shoes. The better the grip for the trail, the more effective and efficient each step will be. You work hard for each of those strides so make sure you don’t lose any momentum on small slips or slides. A good grippy trail shoe with the right tread for the terrain will see each foot placement hold and save you wasting energy on repeating any of those hard-earned moves. You also may want to think about how you lace your shoe as well, tight lacing around the toes is best avoided and similar to downhill running the grip should be slightly firmer on the bridge of the foot, cutting off the blood to the toes can be quite painful! Next-up, running poles. If you have a choice, use them. Without doubt they make life easier. Trouble is you may not be allowed to use them. In the UK the TRA do not allow them, and in the Alps often the vertical km races or short length high ascent races do not allow them either, due to the risk of injury to each other on steep, narrow routes. Though, at the moment, a lot of the long-distance races do, like the UTMB. You’ll also be pleased to know that Run the Wild also allows them, in fact we actively encourage them. I’m not going to get into the ethics of whether they should be used, but if they are allowed, use them. Make sure you practise though as if you haven’t then it’s quite easy to get soreness in your elbows (tendonitis) and also it helps to prepare by building up arm strength. They not only provide more stability, they share the work with your legs against gravity and unlike some of the other techniques I’ll discuss below, keep you upright, lungs open and good visibility on the ground ahead. We will look at trail running pole techniques in another article but they are a key technique for uphill running.

LIMITING FACTORS

There are a handful of techniques that you can use on the hill. What you choose, or are indeed forced to use depends on limiting factors, including the angle of the slope and your personal ability. The stronger you get the more you will be able to run, but there will always be a rubicon to cross, somewhere you have to start walking, scrambling or even climbing to get up the hill. So, what are the limiting factors to you being able to run up hill?

1. Slope Angles - This is fundamentally what the fuss is all about! Let’s put this into perspective. A 0 degree slope is flat ground, 9 degrees is about the maximum gradient available on a treadmill (15%), 20 degrees is the limit for running very short distances, 30-40 degrees are pisted ski slopes, 50 degrees your hands would touch the ground in front of you and would need to scramble, 90 degrees is a vertical wall! Most people will find 3 degrees challenging if they are not used to hills, and most runners struggle with more than 7 degrees for any sustained period of time! Hence, we are dealing with a narrow band of slopes to be able to run. However, all this will be really dependent on where you are physically, and if you work hard you can push your angle.

2. Strength - Having strong leg muscles, arms and core will help you win the fight against gravity. The muscles in the posterior part of the leg will have to do the most work: glutes, hamstrings and calves. However, also the quads, adductors and abductors will come into play. Since moving up hill, whether walking or running, requires you to lean forwards, you are more up on the balls of your feet (the front of your foot) and so your calves can get a lot of loading. This means you need to think about strength training such as squats and lunges, and also how you manage the loading on your tendons. Don’t forget to strengthen your arms as they will really help with the techniques. The conclusion is that the more you hill training you do, the better you will become. However, you will also benefit from strength training in the gym and don’t forget to never increase intensity or volume to reduce risk of injury.

3. Lactic acid threshold - Your body is a machine and moving uphill requires much more effort all round. Oxygen deficits (oxygen need vs availability) shoot up compared to running on flats as you engage at least 10% more work in your leg muscles than when on the flat. It’s very easy to start off too quick and suddenly get flushed with lactic acid and have to ease off. Your lungs, your heart, your muscles all require so much more from you, studies have shown oxygen deficits can reach 80% on 10 degree gradients. Running uphill can therefore be akin to sprinting, but sprinters only have seconds before the end of their race. The best uphill runners have strong legs, big lungs and a strong heart. You will benefit from training your lactic acid threshold at track and tempo training sessions and getting that VO2 Max as high as possible.

4. Stamina - Working on your endurance, both mentally and physically will help you develop the stamina required to keep going. Physically this is done by training your body to run consistently on a slope angle you can manage, mentally to keep being able to switch from walking to running and back to maximise your performance over the ground, as well as to keep going until the end. Often knowing what angles (either visually or measuring with an app on your phone) will help you know what your current level is. Mentally you need to be able to break the route down to give it your best, and then stick with it even when it feels horrible.

5. Strategy - Having poor strategy on the hill lets most people down. From underestimating the distance, angle, to not pushing themselves when they could be running and not walking and vice versa, they all need to be considered in your strategy. Break down the route into sections, this will help create bite sized portions which will keep you motivated but also work out which technique is the most appropriate for that section. Therefore, knowing the route will really help. If you find that you are struggling with fatigue switch back into a less intensive technique every certain number of steps. In a moment, I will discuss the techniques that you can bring to bear when you develop your strategy, so you can maximise the efficiency at how quickly you can get up the hill.

6. Transitioning - Most people forget this too. Moving from running to walking and back again is brutal. You have to overcome both the mental and physical inertia. Muscles in your legs suddenly get washed with lactic acid and different muscles will scream as you change gear. It’s worth getting familiar with this feeling as it is usually only a momentary peak in the overall pain of what it is uphill running! It's all too easy to stop running and start walking sooner than needed but to wait just a bit longer from transitioning back into running, and all of those missed chances add up over the whole route.

TECHNIQUES

We now have identified why running up hill is so difficult! Just try it and you’ll know why. Let’s now explore what techniques we can bring to the hill in order to have the best possible chance to win this battle. As with all these techniques you need to identify on the path ahead of you where you need to transition into the next most appropriate technique, you will need all of them at some point, maybe even within just a short distance.

Running Techniques

There are 3 techniques you can use for running on the hill depending on whether your goal is to get stronger or get to the end quicker.

Running - To run up hill you need to be able to carry enough momentum that at some point both feet are off the ground, if not, then you are walking! In order to run up hill you need to shorten your stride and move onto the balls of your feet. Lean slightly forwards and stay strong. Learn how to identify what inclines you can run, even if that means using a clinometer to measure them (free downloadable apps available). Your benchmark will be being able to run without hitting your lactic acid threshold, but at the same time pushing it so you are just back from it. 

Pros: cadence stays high, quickest technique
Cons: exhausting and if you push it too much build up too much lactic acid, doesn't work efficiently on steep slopes


Running in low gears - I advise my clients, that if they can jog on the spot then theoretically they can run up almost any gradient. It’s like bike gears. Go with a smaller gear, ie shorten your stride until you are just moving a few inches, landing on the balls of your feet and lean forward according to the slope. You will likely go super slow on the steeper sections but using this method means you will set up a base for being able to increase the slope angles you can run on.

Pros: cadence stays high, great for building a stronger base for running steeper inclines, good for training
Cons: slow and walking is often quicker


Run / Walk - If you find you are fatiguing on a consistent gradient, switch between running and walking after counting 20 paces or so. This way you maintain momentum without committing to walking. It requires mental stamina to keep transitioning but is far quicker than just walking.

Pros: quicker than walking, good way to catch your breath, deals with consistent inclines that are just beyond your ability to run
Cons: requires mental discipline and stamina

Walking Techniques

At times running is just too exhausting, maybe you need a break, maybe the slope angle is too steep or maybe you are a quicker hill walker than hill runner. There are three techniques which you can employ.

Walking normally – Long strides, as much on the balls of your feet as possible whilst swinging your arms and leaning into the slope, remaining nicely ​upright. Try to keep momentum, this should still feel quite maximal but it will give you an opportunity to catch your breath.

Pros: brings your heart rate down, feels more comfortable, great on steps and broken ground
Cons: it’s slow, it’s not a maximal use of resources, a bit too relaxed if you are racing


Hands just below your waist – I’ve never seen this one talked about before but I find it very useful. Using the same technique as walking but by making a light fist in each hand, with fingers pointing inwards or towards the waist, push off with each stride on the very top of the quads, just down from the waist (some people find this comfortable with open hands instead). I find this gives me a little extra boost, especially when I’m tired. Walking normally often means I’m not using my arms to help much, so this is great halfway house for when the gradient is a little steeper but not so steep for all-out war but still means you can get more power in each stride.

Pros: keeps momentum over slightly steeper ground, brings in more upper body strength, lungs stay open
Cons: slower than running


 

Hands on thighs – a classic technique and easily identified with hands placed on thighs (either pointing inwards or outwards), pushing up in synch with each leg. It’s worth practising though. Some shorts or leggings have stickier material so you can get better grip for the push off which is worth considering. At this point when I’m employing this technique I’m often sucking in air and dribbling a bit with maximal effort. Use it for steep gradients, all the way up until you need to scramble. It works best with big strides and is extremely powerful. You’ll be hunched over your body more than the other techniques, so try to keep looking up which will help oxygen flow and also stop you heading off the path! The steeper the path the less hunched over you will be so if you find yourself overly hunched it’s likely you on a gradient that is runnable. Training arm strength will help.

Pros: extremely powerful way of getting up steep ground, full use of body resources, more efficient than running on steep slopes
Cons: easy to miss the transition back to running, so keep a look out for the over hunched feel

SUM-UP

Everyone finds hills challenging. However, by following some of the guidelines above you are likely to get the best out of yourself over the ground. It’s something that you can only improve on if you train for it, both on hills and also off them with strength training. Think about your body working as one unit, arms, legs and core. The sheer intensity of hill running makes it a full body experience and massive calorie burner. Find out the slope angles you can currently run and push them! Don’t forget to run everything you can run, and employ the walking techniques with maximal effect. Keep an eye for the next article on using running poles up hill!

Running Through Mud

We’ve all been there, crashing along a trail and then rounding a bend, find a massive puddle in front of you. What do you do? Do you, like most people try to get on the edge of the footpath to avoid the muddy foot bath?! Or do you plough on through into the unknown depths? Here are a few tips on how to avoid getting mud on your face this Autumn.

What colour is it?
The colour and consistency of the soil and mud will tell us a lot about how slippery it could be when wet and also how likely puddles are going to be. Without getting your portable chemistry set out, let’s do a quick check of the most common encounters… 

  • White: If it’s white then we’re talking chalk, in my experience the worst soil type to be on if it’s wet. I have seen many a brave man or woman think they can outwit this slippery customer. As soon as the rain hits you’re looking at something with the consistency of wet soap. Not worth doing any sudden movements or turns, ideally you want to find the grass and avoid the white stuff like the plague, otherwise you will fall and it will hurt. Note, puddles in chalk often form in quite deep ruts as the water cannot escape.
  • Orange: Next worse one - clay. Same as above for chalk. You’ll also be pleased with how quickly your treads fill up with both these sorts of mud, rendering them completely useless. Mud on mud. So a top tip is to take a moment and either wash it off or wipe it off on the grass, getting some grip back. 
  • Yellow: If it’s yellow… then it’s probably quite sandy, the consistency of the track might be made of gravel as well and for either this shouldn’t be a problem in wet ground, charge on through. 
  • Black: Most likely peat. Doesn’t normally stick to your shoe like the white and orange mud but it will be a sign of very wet areas. This could be a long day out, best just stick to the path. 
  • Brown: Just your usual mud, get stuck in bearing in mind the other techniques talked about below.
  • Green: Grass. Grass is always the better option than chalk or clay but not always vs. other terrain. Most accidents occur when people are descending wet grass, unfortunately there are no "grass training courses" but the best technique is to keep your centre of mass low and knees bent.  
  • Purple: Not all grass is made equal. If you’ve ever run in the hills in the UK, such as Snowdonia, the Lakes or Scotland then you may have spotted areas of purple grass, commonly known as ‘purple moor grass’. Despite it's purple appeal it’s best avoided as it likes swampy ground. A good tip to avoid a dip.

Get a grip
Having sufficient tread on your trail shoe (if you can keep it from getting clogged up) as well as the right grip type for the terrain is going to make a big difference. From massive lugs, to old school spikes and everything inbetween, trail shoes have many different treads, they are also made of different softness of rubber, grip patterns and depth of grip. Know which ones have the best grip for your terrain.

Be brave
Most of the time its best to just plough straight on through, keeping your stride and gait unchanged. That way you won’t risk a slip on the edge of the path which could see you not only land puddle bound but worse with a twisted an ankle.

Hidden depths
Some puddles are worse than others, watch out for those ones at the side of roads which could see you knee deep or have an uneven bottom. Be aware of narrow tracks which mountain bikers and horses use which can deep uneven ruts.

Bog off
Just avoid bogs, areas of the Peak District are notorious. You can spend days getting out of those. If you do get stuck in them, spread your weight out as much as possible.

Tread lightly
Be like Jesus and try to walk on water. Well what I mean is don’t put too much faith in each footing, moving quickly to the next foot will reduce the time you’re sinking into the mud. You can also reduce the weight on one foot by doing a mini step, hopping quickly to the next foot, just remember you’ll land more heavily on the next step.

Keep warm
Leggings or better still a good coating of freshly dried mud will keep your legs warm so you can tackle all the mud and puddles on route with warm and reactive muscles.

Use your poles
As George Orwell once wrote... "4 legs are better than 2". Use the poles to dance along the path, jump the puddles with added security. Possibly even stop and use them as a depth gauge. Keep your hands out of the straps if you are at risk of falling, broken wrists are worse than muddy legs.

Which way is north?
Not that old chestnut again! Yes I like knowing where I am. It’s also true that paths that run east-west have more puddles on the southern aspect. Yes I am a nerd.

Goretex trail shoes?
Tricky one, depends on whether you are going to be consistently running through puddles, if so, don't bother with waterproof shoes as they are more likely to become waterlogged as the water struggles to get out.

Pick your moment
I remember hurtling along a particularly muddy, puddly stretch using the “Be brave” motto as above, when as I came to a corner in the trail, I spotted a family. Clearly out for a nice morning stroll in their wellies. Kindly, they all stepped back off the path allowing me to pass, I didn’t even need to slow down. Feeling in my element with mud splashed up the sides of my legs, the true symbol of a gnarly wild trail runner I approached the corner with speed. In reply to their kind gesture I managed to just about get out the “good” part of “good morning” as my legs went from under me and I hit the deck. Turning in mud, and at speed is unwise, it’s also embarrassing when people watch. Make sure the coast is clear before you clown around, unless of course you’re taking part in tough mudder… 

Descending Technique for Trails

One of the most appealing things to me about trail running is the variety of techniques required to cope with courses that weave their way up, down and round the hills. The Alpine trails that we offer at Run the Wild encompass all these elements, but it’s the descents that people often find the most challenging. This can be a particular issue for those who lack consistent access to hilly and varied terrain, which helps strengthen muscles and joints and ultimately increase speed and confidence over a variety of ground. Yet given the right approach to training and preparation, location need not be a barrier to developing your inner Chamois. Of all the aspects of trail running, time spent on developing your descending technique can bring the biggest gains to not only your ability but also your enjoyment out on the trail. It’s one of the great thrills of trail running to have the world passing by in a blur as you focus intently on the narrow tunnel of vision ahead of you with legs in full flow. However, great rewards also come with increased risks so it’s important to emphasise taking a cautious and patient approach. The elite runners make it look deceptively easy, but they’ve also had to train themselves up to this level of ability.

FOCUS, LOOK AFTER YOURSELF AND GO FOR IT!

Before we launch into the details, it’s important to begin with a few things in mind.

CONCENTRATE: When descending, the most important thing is getting through it uninjured. Speed, position, what you’re having for dinner etc. are rendered meaningless if you blow it at high speed through your mind wandering. Remain present and concentrate entirely on what you are doing and the ground ahead. It only takes a momentary lapse of concentration to invite disaster, particularly late in the day or race.

KEEP CONTROL:  Choose trails that you know, or at least have walked or run round, to identify any hazards to be aware of. If there’s a cliff edge right next to a tight turn on the trail and you’re not in total control, then you’re asking for serious trouble. It’s better to be late in this world than early in the next: slow down, get past the hazard and then pick it up again. On a less serious but equally important note, particularly in the Autumnal season with leaves on the ground, exercise greater caution when it’s wet and slippery underfoot. 

BE CONFIDENT: Your mind greatly influences how your body performs. So if you’re anxious or hesitant about running downhill, then chances are you’re going to tense up and lose the dynamism required to flow with the terrain. It’s obviously not as simple as immediately flicking a mental switch, but by choosing trails you know well and following the tips below, your confidence can grow as you gain more trust in what your body can do. 

Practice, Practice, PRACTICE

Take time in your training to seek out progressively challenging hills and trails that you can use to build strength in your joints, ligaments and muscles, thereby giving you positive mental feedback to draw on. It’s helpful to focus on these key elements: 

i. maintaining good form

ii. improving your feet-eye coordination and route choice

iii. developing your ‘gears’

​To begin with opt for short, gradual hills that have a clear run out to enable you to focus on maintaining good form. Keep a slight forward lean from the ankles (rather than bowing forward at the waist), which will help your feet land under the body, and let your legs stretch out behind you. Do several repeats that should feel more exhilarating than exhausting. If you’re new to this, then starting conservatively on hills that take only a minute or so is good. You can then build up to longer hills as your body and confidence adjusts. Alongside these hillier sessions, you can also start venturing onto more technical trails to hone your feet-to-eye coordination (and strengthen your lateral ankle ligaments). These can either be on shallow gradient or even flat trails, since your primary goal should be to pick a good, fluid route to keep you moving efficiently. Adopt an active stance with bent knees. Keep your footsteps quick, short and light so you can switch direction quickly if hazards such as smooth wet rock slabs or slick tree routes need avoiding. Scan a few metres in front of you, picking out a path of least resistance to keep you moving freely and without massive strides or drop offs. If you tend to focus only on the next step then you’ll stall and slow down. You may need to walk sections if it gets too intricate, but hopefully within a few sessions you’ll feel able to run more.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

So as your hill sessions and your coordination improves, you will hopefully feel more confident to seek out steeper and more technical trails. Your form will have to adjust as the terrain steepens, requiring more control through leaning back and adopting a heel strike and a small stride. Your arms should also come more into play on technical trails to maintain balance and keep you upright. Keep them as wide and exaggerated as you like: it can often feel more like a dance than running! If you venture onto loose scree or mud it’s often a case of whatever it takes to ride the terrain and stay upright. Any skiing, snowboarding or skateboarding ability can serve you well in these situations. Finally, you should be able to seek out routes that encompass a variety of terrain that encompass all of these elements. This is where your gears come into play, since your technique will have to be adapted for each section, making for a continually interesting run that makes time and distance pass unnoticed. Just remember to have your watch with you if you have to be back at work.

WHAT GOES UP

Since your routes will feature both ups and downs, it’s important to be aware of transitioning from one to the other. When you crest the hill after a long, demanding ascent your muscles will need some time to adjust, so ease into the early part of the descent and gradually increase your speed. The biggest danger is catching a toe on a rock or root and tripping over (since you’re prone to forgetting to pick your feet up on tired legs after ascending), or landing awkwardly and twisting an ankle. 

SMART TRAINING

To compliment your time on the trail, regular core work, squats, lunges and one foot balancing exercises using a wobble board or cushion can be effective. They don’t take long to implement in your training, and are a vital part of pre-hab and staying injury free. Ankle flexibility is particularly useful to work on since the trails are uneven and the ground underfoot can often take you by surprise. Heavy descending sessions can take a huge toll on the body, so it’s important to be sparing with them. Do no more than one of these every couple of weeks or longer, and remember that like any smart training, it’s a fine balance between consistency and intensity. Have fun and save the all out efforts for race day!

Written by Alistair Bignell, Run the Wild Guide

How to use running poles on steep terrain

As soon as you get into trail running, you’ll notice there is a now a bewildering range of colourful, technical and exciting kit to buy. Running poles are just one of these products, but it may not be clear if you actually need them. Here, Emily, local qualified guide and experienced trail runner based in the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc valley, dispels the myths and looks at the techniques employed whilst running with poles.

WHY USE RUNNING POLES?
Overall, you are going to need running poles if you are running up and down long steep hills, plus poles will increase your stability on rocky terrain - therefore, it makes sense that poles are very popular in the Alps!

STABILITY: Poles will also help immensely with any technical downhill, stream crossings or jumping down big drops by aiding balance and protecting your knees. The rougher the terrain, the more useful poles will be.

PROPULSION UPHILL: Although many people first think of poles being useful when running downhill, they are probably of most benefit on the uphill. Here, they can save you energy by distributing the workload across the body, which provides some exercise for the arms and takes strain off your legs. Holding poles may also encourage you to keep a more upright position, which is better for your posture and optimises breathing.

HOW TO USE RUNNING POLES
This may not be as straightforward as it seems! Here are a few tips:

- Although some people might use one pole when hiking, you definitely need two in order to be in balance whilst running.

- Nowadays poles are usually left and right handed, which makes them fit the shape of your hand more comfortably.

- Straps are really useful, especially on the long steep uphills where you end up walking for a long time. During this ‘power-hiking’ phase of trail running, you can save energy by just resting your hands in the straps. By not gripping the pole with your hands, your arms will be more relaxed and you won’t get so tired. Have a look at this picture to check the right way to hold put your hand through the loop. Make sure you put it in the loop from underneath and from the top as shown in the picture (right).

- Take your hands out for technical downhills in case you trip over. This will reduce the likelihood of injury - to your hands in particular - as you can just drop the pole rather than getting stuck in it if you fall.

- If you have poles that vary in size, it may be worth changing the length if you are going up or downhill for a long time: You might find it easier to have them about 10 cm shorter when going uphill.

- If you’re running with others, leave at least a couple of metres between you and the person in front to avoid being stabbed! This can be an issue in races when there is a big field of competitors battling it out along a narrow single-track path. If the person in front somehow manages to hit you, it’s fair to say it’s your fault for being too close, rather than their fault for not getting far enough ahead of you!

- Flat sections: If you have fold-able poles, it’s worth attaching them to your pack for long flat sections. Otherwise, it’s best to grip the middle of the pole and run along holding them horizontally, one in each hand. Once you find the balance point along the pole, so the same weight is in front of and behind your hand, they won’t seem to weigh very much.

WHAT PROBLEMS MIGHT YOU ENCOUNTER?
Tripping over the poles: This could happen when the terrain is particularly rough or, even more likely, when you’re tired! There isn't much you can do to stop this apart from staying focused and paying attention. Also, take your hands out of the wrist loops over sections where you’re likely to trip in order to limit the potential damage.

Blisters on hands: This is likely to happen if you suddenly start using the poles regularly or if you do a long run with them. Therefore, building up gradually will give your skin time to toughen up. If you don’t have this option, it would be a good idea to wear thin fingerless gloves to protect your hands.

Eating and drinking on the go: I manage to hold both poles within one hand and still be able to use those fingers to help the other hand open packets etc. Like everything, it gets easier with practice!

WHICH RUNNING POLES?
Overall, lightweight is best, but generally they are a lot more expensive. The lightest are made of carbon, aluminium is a little bit heavier but is also stronger. I use Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles which are only 290g for the pair at 120 cm long. Like mine, most running poles are fold-able, as you often want to pack them into your back-pack for travel or for long flattish stretches of running. In terms of length, some poles can be adjusted, but these will be heavier. When you’re holding the right length pole, your forearm and upper arm should be at right-angles - ie. the line from your hand to elbow should be horizontal. If you ski, it will be the same as your ski poles.

Overall, it’s best to just try any poles to get used to the idea first of all.  Over time you’ll become fully accustomed to them - and might wonder how you coped without them before!

Written by Emily Geldard, Run the Wild Guide