Unless you confine yourself to a towpath, trail running is rarely flat. And when you do end up climbing, the gradient is often steeper and the surface more varied and technical than when you’re running on the road. Once you’ve mastered the art of running uphill on the trail, though, it’s one of the great joys of being off road – and usually rewarded with the best views. Take these tips into account when the trail turns upwards.
The first thing you’ll notice when the ground is no longer flat is that it’s much harder to keep your footing. Gravity is fighting against you and trying to drag you back down to the foot of the slope, ably assisted by slippery grass, mud, rocks and scree. So the first thing you’re going to need is a good pair of trail running shoes. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get shoes that are perfect for every off-road surface, so think about where you run the most (or if you’re training for an off-road race, think about where you’re racing) and find a shoe that works for that surface. For example, if your favourite routes are muddy, you’ll need deep lugs for grip, whereas if you’re likely to encounter large rocks, you might need a more sticky outsole rubber.
When is the best way to run not to run? When you’re trying to get up a long, steep slope. Sometimes the loss of traction and the sheer length of a climb make it impractical to try to keep lifting your knees and running. A good way to gauge this in a group situation or race is to look ahead – if the faster runners are walking, it’s a pretty good sign that you should be, too. Don’t slouch your way up, though – walk up purposefully, using your hands to push on your thighs.
You’ll quickly notice the burning in your calves and quads as you run up long hills. That in itself shows that you’ll be getting stronger in those areas the more you run uphill, but if you need a headstart, then try strengthening these muscles at home or in the gym. Even without weights, lunges, squats and calf raises will all help prepare you for the climbs.
Just as you need to be stronger in some areas to climb successfully, you also need to be a bit more flexible (and we’re not just talking about your pace expectations). You’ll need a greater range of movement in your hip flexors for big steps up, and if you’re on grassy slopes, in particular, you’ll need a bit of extra give in your calves (try it once and you’ll see what we mean). Pay particular attention to these areas when you’re stretching after hill sessions, so you don’t find yourself pulling up with cramp when you reach that glorious summit.
Driving your arms back and forth when you run is a good idea even on the flat, as it helps maintain a good rhythm to your stride. When you’re running uphill on an uneven surface, using your arms helps to provide balance as well as keeping you focused on powering up that hill. You’ll usually need a slight forward lean as you run uphill, but try to keep your back straight rather than hunching over, with your chest open, eyes forward or slightly up, and your arms driving from the shoulders.
Uphill running quickly becomes a sprint workout if you’re trying to bound up a couple of metres at a time. While it might be tempting to try this just to get the damn thing over with, shorter steps are usually more efficient when you’re heading upwards. Think of it as you would when you’re running on the flat – pushing your foot too far forward puts you in an unnatural position and makes it harder to gain purchase on the ground. Go for quicker, shorter steps and we promise you’ll reach the top faster.