Saturday, April 14, 2012

The View Is Worth The Climb

 “Hills are your friend.” My dad used to always say this to me before races and difficult training sessions that involved rolling terrain.  Several years of racing cross country, marathons, (and now trail ultras), I hear that statement as positive self talk in my mind, although it is slightly modified to “Uphills are your friend.”

The fact of the matter is that unlike a lot of ultra trail runners that I’ve seen, I suck on the downhills. As mentioned in my Chuckanut 50k race recap, I was amazed at how quickly some of the top runners were able to descend technical single-track at high rates of speed.  In racing with 2011 Mountain Running Champion Max King for the first 2.5 hours at Chuckanut, I had a front row view to his amazing downhill running abilities.

So in this blog post I’m going to focus on my strength (and something I may be a little more qualified to talk about) i.e. uphill running. 

Running up hills has many attributes that can make you a faster, stronger, and more versatile runner on the trails. Considering the elevation gains during many notable ultras (Leadville 100 and the Speedgoat 50 come to mind first) or on just about any mountainous trail run, specific preparation to tackle steep ascents is essential. Famed running coach Jack Daniels mentions the “law of specificity in training” in his book Daniels’ Running Formula, which basically comes down to this: if you want to improve your ability to run uphill, you must practice and train your body for the specific demands involved. Such demands, or training stimuli, involve a myriad of cardiovascular and skeletal-muscular adaptations.

In terms of training your heart and lungs, running up hills gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Even in covering relatively short horizontal distances, the amount of vertical gain you can achieve on an ascent (and the amount of time you spend climbing) requires a high level of work output. In other words, it is quite easy to devise lactate threshold and Vo2max workouts within a hill session, as often your heart rate has skyrocketed very close to those respective intensities. Such intense efforts strengthen the heart muscle, increase stroke volume, and improve your ability to keep blood lactate levels at a constant, manageable level. These attributes of aerobic fitness development, as well as increased aerobic enzyme activity, and changes in the density and size of mitochondria, will improve your ability to cover all distances more efficiently.

In term of training your muscular system, running up hill has traditionally been a method employed by coaches to develop strength and improve running form. For example, Arthur Lydiard’s training is known to involve a specific hill phase involving regular uphill repeats. Famed marathon Coach Renato Canova has advocated the improvements in neuromuscular coordination derived from running short, steep hill sprints. Essentially, when you run uphill your running form changes so that you have to work specific muscles (quads, glutes, calves and your core muscles mainly) in a way that will make you a more economical runner. The high knee lift, a slight forward lean, a shortened stride with a more pronounced midfoot strike and toe-off, and an exaggerated arm swing pays dividends on developing your speed over time.

As I prepare for the rigors of the Mt. Washington Road Race (7.6 miles at an average grade of 12%) I find myself starting to think about runs in terms of vertical gain rather than just horizontal miles. I’ve found that the variety in training can be refreshing to a trail runner who is constantly seeking challenges and adapting. The benefits of running uphill not only include an increase in fitness, but also lead to a higher level of fulfillment and enjoyment in the sport.

Train Smart
Race Hard
and Run Happy,




  1. i thought your performance at chuckanut was great, especially after the "wrong turn".

    with your speedy roadster background, i'm wondering what you think of hills as an analogue for speedwork. max king alluded to that in his tips for running uphill in runner's world:,8029,s6-238-511--13759-0,00.html

    would like to hear your thoughts...

  2. Hey Eric, Thanks!

    Max has been running up and down hills a lot longer than I have and is also a lot speedier - so I'd take any advice he gives. The coach Percy Cerutty would make his runners do all sorts of crazy hill workouts to build speed and lactate tolerance. The variables involved in different track workouts (Interval duration, recovery time, velocity/effort, etc) can all be applied to running uphill workouts. The value of uphills in speed development though is in how it reinforces proper running form and develops muscle power while activating fast-twitch fibers (this would be raw speed and be down more on short, steep hill reps) ala Canova alactic hill sprints. Of course in training for races 10k and up your overall core and leg strength and lactate threshold will help you run faster times as your heart and lungs can be conditioned and your overall running economy improves. For this to occur, the longer hill repeat sessions and continuous long runs over hills are more specific.

  3. thanks for the detailed answer, Sage, much appreciated. still trying to nail down what "proper running form" is. it seems when i run fast, i have a lot more leg lift and kick, much longer strides (not hard to imagine). when i'm out on a long run though, i tend to settle into more of what i've heard referred to as the "marathon shuffle", where there isn't much knee lift or leg kick and the strides are much shorter. i can't tell if i'm doing myself a disservice or what, but if i lengthen my stride and up my knees and kick, i go faster but burn out more quickly. i've been adding in a lot of hills, which i'm hoping will help keep my form in check on the long run...

    anyway, thanks again, and looking forward to see your performance in upcoming mountain races and ultras!!

    1. Eric, no problem.
      I've found that the "marathon shuffle" usually is the best way for me to cover ground quickly (even in a 10k on the track). The general rule of thumb is to always keep your stride rate pretty high (and going uphills requires that as well too as long as you aren't doing a bounding workout like Lydiard used to say). I should also mention that I think uphill running really builds your core (abs and lower back) so that you are a more solid runner overall and that aspect of it could pay dividends in helping improving your running economy.

  4. Maybe next year you'll come out to Utah and run the Speedgoat? The competition this year is stacked. Although the course itself isn't terribly technical Snowbird is a very enjoyable location to run at.

    Congratulations on Mount Washington btw