Uphill running performance is one of the easiest to evaluate, because it doesn’t involve much technique and reactivity as flat or downhill running, but it isn’t only about our “motor” and some other factors affect how fast we run the hills.
Compared to flat running, uphill is characterized by a higher step frequency, increased internal mechanical work, shorter aerial phase duration and greater duty factor (the fraction of the duration of a stride for which each foot remains on the ground) When we run up we will put our body also a bit leaning forward to get the gravity center closer to the ground.
If in flat running the speed is produced in a great part from the elasticity of the muscles (intra and inter connection in the lower leg muscles) and mechanical work is great in the hamstrings, When we run up, lower limb muscles perform a higher net mechanical work to increase the body’s potential energy. The increased demands for work as running incline increases are met by an increase in power output at all joints, particularly the hip. This implies that uphill running requires greater muscular activity. Especially the calves, quadriceps and psoas.
With the inclination the strike patterns change, with a progressive adoption from mid- to fore-foot strike. And also the energy cost increases with the slope. It is interesting to see that the Energy cost decreases running downhill until a -20% slope where it starts to increase again, probably by the retention / eccentric work of the muscles.
Running uphill is a combination of horizontal speed and vertical speed. If to create HS a big part of the speed comes from the RE, the amplitude and flexibility of the hips and the posterior muscles, this decrease when we run uphill, but still have a strong component up to 20% slopes, where the horizontal speed is more important than the vertical speed. In steeper inclinations from 30%, where the horizontal speed is almost residual and the performance comes in a majority from the vertical speed the eccentric-concentric strength of lower limb muscles has a much bigger role.
We can take the example of Urban Zemmer (29’42” VK) who was performing very well in steep terrain, inclinations of 40-50%, when walking was more efficient than running and it is about muscle strength and cadence, but he wasn’t performing that good in races under 35-40% when running and elasticity was important.
On the opposite side we have Jonathan Wyatt, the kiwi was the strongest in uphill races, with a strong track & field background and great muscle capacities he was able to generate a big vertical speed up to 30% slopes.
Some training for uphill running
So, for progressing running uphill we need to work our cardiovascular capacity (Vo2) and the legs strength. It is important to not forget the flat work since up to 25% of incline it has a great component and strike amplitude and elasticity still important.
It is also interesting to note that to work the mechanical strength, sports like ski mountaineering, cycling or cross country skiing, where the elasticity is not that important but the muscle strength is what produces movement will be very effective for uphill running.
So, what are the fundamentals an athlete should work to became a strong uphiller?
- Vo2max: well it’s not a secret that to be a strong uphill runner, specially after 15% incline a big cardiovascular capacity will be needed. Higher is our Vo2max more oxygen we will transport to the muscles, and as we saw, greater is the incline, greater is the muscle work. To improve Vo2max is many trainings (30×30’s, 60×60’s, 2-3′ reps, lactate intervals…) weight is also important here, lighter is the runner, more the balance power/weight will be high.
- Strength: legs power is important, both eccentric and concentric movements, specially in uphills where horizontal speed is low and power hiking or running are producing mostly vertical speed. Calves, gluteals, Achilles tendon, quads and psoas are the principal muscles to specifically work.
- Elasticity/stiffness, rebound: at least, the difference of 2 uphill runners with same Vo2max, legs strength will be the elasticity / stiffness on their ankles, that will produce a rebound and make them lengthen the steeps a few centimeters. That will take years of work doing uphill running to work the stiffness and elasticity on the tendons around the ankle.
So here some exercises I found interesting to train for improving uphill:
Muscle resistance: A good uphill workout is to find a steep uphill (25-35%) of 500 to 750m of elevation and do 2 to 3 reps, first one at 85% of Vo2max, recover on the downhill, 2nd and 3rd one at 75-80% with the fatigue. It is an interesting session to work muscle resistance and endurance threshold.
Muscle strength: To work the strength to be able to do longer steeps when running up, a good way to train that is to find a steep slope (30-35%) and do a fartleck exercise changing every 3 to 5’ from a cardiovascular component (small steeps but high cadence) to strength component (very slow cadence and long steep, almost as jumping up). (3′ cardio-3′ strength). And doing that for 300 to 700m of elevation.
Classic interval training for Vo2 max in different gradients to work strength and cadence at the same time: Click here for an Uphill Pace Calculator (depending the incline)