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Hill Running Made Easier

There are techniques you can learn that will make hill running a whole lot easier--and we're talking about running up and down
Hills don't have to hurt, and they don't have to be intimidating. There are techniques you can learn that will make hill running a whole lot easier--and I'm talking about up and down.

By shortening your stride and running with a light touch, you can feel nearly as good going uphill as you do on flat land. With relaxed, controlled strides, you'll also be able to zoom down the other side without pounding your legs.

Hills are great for teaching rhythm, one of the most overlooked and crucial aspects of distance running. If you let hills break up your rhythm, you will slow dramatically. But if you make the proper adjustments to maintain cadence, you'll make molehills out of the mountains you've been climbing.

This topic makes me think of when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon with a friend in 1995. "I don't have the leg strength to run hills well," Marlene blurted out to me as we crested Capitol Hill. "I don't care what you say about stride length, I lose it on the uphills." I offered suggestions as best I could ... and remembered the days when I struggled with hills.

Early enlightenment
As a collegiate cross-country runner--and full of hill-running bravado--I would pass runners by the dozens on uphills, only to be repassed by the end of the race. Then, during my senior year at Wesleyan University, I got injured. Coach Swanson insisted that I ride the course with him in the team van.

From my window, I watched as teammate Amby Burfoot patiently let brasher runners move ahead on the hills early in the race. Most of them ended up paying for it (as I had) by using up valuable energy. Amby cruised easily on the uphills, then took advantage of downhills with relaxed, controlled striding.

Later, as the others struggled with late-race fatigue, Amby still had something left for a strong finish. Watching that race began my evolution into a good hill runner, and I have since learned many more lessons on smoothing out the ups and downs. Here are some for you now.

Heavy breathing
Whether you're going up or down, try to maintain the same level of effort and breathing rate that you use on level ground. Don't worry if you're slowing down going up, just reduce stride length accordingly. Continue to shorten your stride when the grade is steeper, and extend to normal as the grade eases, all the while maintaining steady effort and breathing.

It's a wonderful revelation when you realize there's a stride short enough to give you control over the steepest of hills. As you shorten your stride and keep your feet directly under your body, you'll gain efficiency and competence. With competence comes confidence.

Up we go ...
Here's exactly how hill running should work. As you start uphill, shorten your stride. Don't try to maintain the same pace you were running on the flat. This will exhaust you and leave you depleted later, when you can least afford it. Take "baby steps" if necessary, and try to keep the same turnover rhythm as on the flat. Your posture should be upright (don't lean forward or back); head, shoulders and hips should form a straight line over the feet. Keep your feet low to the ground. If your breathing begins to quicken, this means you're either going too fast, overstriding or bounding too far off the ground.

You should use a light, "ankle-flicking" push-off with each step, not an explosive motion. (This wastes energy.) If the hill is long or the grade increases, keep shortening your stride to maintain a smooth and efficient breathing pattern. Run "through" the top of the hill. That is, don't crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back on your effort. Rather, accelerate gradually into the downhill. Gravity is now on your side.

... and down again
As you head downhill, stay relaxed. As with uphills, don't overstride. (You don't want to catch too much "air.") Overstriding pounds the feet, stresses the hamstrings and overuses the quadriceps muscles at each footfall. Keeping feet lower to the ground will give you more control. Because you're going downhill, your stride will cover more ground than it does on flat land, though it should feel slightly shorter.

Touch lightly with each step and let the steepness of the hill dictate your stride rate. If you start going too fast, shorten your stride slightly until it is under control. On gentle downgrades, you might want to try leaning forward slightly to increase speed. Just be careful; leaning too much may chop your stride or make you go too fast. Lastly, visualize gravity pulling you downhill. The momentum you gain going downhill is a wonderful source of energy as you move to level terrain or to another hill.

All together now
So, here's what you need to remember: On the uphills, reduce your stride length but maintain the same stride rhythm and breathing rate. On the downhills, increase stride rhythm somewhat (in response to the downslope) but don't overstride. Keep feet low to the ground.

A medal for Marlene
Marlene recovered after Capitol Hill but then struggled badly on the deceptively long and steep climb to the Iwo Jima monument at the finish of the Marine Corps Marathon. She seemed to be resisting my words of encouragement until I hit on the right phrase: "baby steps." Suddenly, she shortened her stride and shifted her feet underneath her. Her breathing rate decreased, yet she was able to maintain speed. She was running easier ... and there was a smile on her face.

Troubleshooting the hills
Check the following to see

where you need help--and what to do about it.

Going Up

Problem Cause
Breathing too rapidly Overstriding, or bounding too high
Tight leg muscles Overstriding
Tight or sore lower back Leaning too far forward
Shoulders and arms tired or sore Too much arm-swing, or arms extended too far forward

Going Down

Problem Cause
Tight hamstrings, sore shins or "flapping" feet Overstriding; too much "air"
Arms flailing; loss of rhythm Going too fast
Sore lower back Leaning too far backward
Sore quadriceps muscles Probably over-striding, thus forcing quads to work too hard

Original Source

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