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Running excellence: discover your higher ground
What benefits can hill running deliver and how can lowland runners adapt to hill running safely and effectively? SPB looks at the evidence
There’s something very special about hills and mountains. In an age of all-conquering technology that has shaped large swathes of our environment, these multi-billion ton lumps of rock formed hundreds of millions of years ago remind us of our fragility and temporary existence on this planet. They also provide us with a different and often inspiring perspective; head upwards and you quickly discover the familiar places around us look very different from high above.
Another reason to head for the hills is the ever-present human need for challenge. Anybody who has ever climbed a mountain will understand and appreciate the tremendous sense of achievement that comes from conquering gravity while simultaneously traversing rugged terrain. What could be more rewarding that that? Well, ask any hill runner and they’ll tell you that running hills is even better than walking them!
However, regular hill running also confers significant aerobic fitness benefits since by its very nature, it involves relatively high-intensities compared to running on the flat. Interestingly, research shows that these benefits may be particularly relevant to older runners. In a 2008 study on mountain runners aged 35 to 49 years, researchers found that the oxygen uptakes of the runners were extremely high for this age group (in the region of 68-70mls/kg/min – about 3.5 times higher than in equivalent untrained peers)(1).
However, what was even more impressive and unusual was that there was none of the normal decline in aerobic fitness from 35-50 years in this group. In others words, the runners were performing at exactly the same level at 50 years of age as they had done 15 years earlier. Although there is no specific data on this topic, the findings above suggest that adding in regular hill/mountain running into your overall running training schedule could pay dividends in terms of maintaining your fitness levels.
Another benefit of hill/mountain running is the psychological benefits it appears to bring. A study that was published last year analyzed a number of psychological variables of runners participating in mountain races, and their association with athletic performance and success(2). The results showed that mountain runners scored very high values in the psychological variables analyzed compared with other sports disciplines – showing that mountain running involves high levels of mental, as well as physical, application. In particular, merely completing the race (ie not withdrawing) was considered as a success by the runners, helping them to develop resilience, mental toughness, and passion for their sport.
Hill running demands
If you’re a road runner with a reasonable fitness base, and thinking of trying your hand at hill/mountain running, the first thing you’ll probably wonder is ‘Am I fit enough’? The answer to that is almost certainly ‘yes’ but there are a few things worth bearing in mind. For starters, compared to road running, fell running tends to involve much steeper and rougher terrain, and more total ascent, all of which add to the energy demand on a mile for mile basis.
For each 1% of gradient, you’ll be expending about 15% more energy as you climb – energy you don’t get back on the descent. For example, at any given speed, a 1 in 4 (25%) gradient more than quadruples the energy demand compared to running on the flat! Moreover, running over uneven terrain requires a higher knee lift and may not allow you to maintain your usual efficient running style. Soft ground also adds to energy demand; while it tends to absorb the energy of each footfall reducing impact stress, it often reduces the ‘energy return’ effect experienced on tarmac, which means that for any given speed, you’ll be working harder compared to on the road.
For all these reasons, you shouldn’t expect to run anywhere near as fast or as far when tackling the hills. Indeed, up the steepest slopes, even walking briskly might lift you to near your maximum oxygen uptake capacity! Another factor to bear in mind is that running up and down steep gradients over very uneven surfaces will present a challenge to muscle and joints that are used to running on a smooth and relatively flat surface.
The different and unaccustomed muscle loading patterns and ranges of movements – particularly the eccentric contractions during the long descents – will be challenging for muscles, resulting in greater levels of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and requiring longer recovery times(3). For this reason, a good way of getting started is to substitute one or at most two weekly road runs with short and gentle hill runs and then build up very slowly from there. As a bonus, you’ll quickly discover that the fitness gained in the hills also improves your road running!
Although hill running tends to transmit less shock up the legs and into the back than running on hard surfaces, the extra twisting forces on uneven ground means that you should build up your hill mileage only very slowly while the muscles adapt. In particular, your calf muscles will be working harder, so make sure you stretch them regularly (especially after running). It’s also important to keep your quadriceps (frontal thigh) muscles strong and flexible; these muscles play a vital role in stabilising the knee joint, particularly when descending uneven terrain(4).
The most important bit of kit by a long way is a suitable pair of hill shoes. These need to have robust uppers to provide a stable footing on uneven terrain and good grip on the soles – normally a studded pattern. While trail shoes may be adequate for less demanding terrain races in good weather, smooth soled running shoes are definitely NOT suitable. If you’re not sure what footwear to look for, a visit to a specialist running shoe retailer is strongly advised.
Clothing requirements will also differ, not least because for every 300 feet of altitude gained, the temperature drops by 1 degree centigrade. Down in the valley, it may be a fairly balmy day with a temperature of 15o centigrade (60F), but even at only 2000ft it will be nearer 8C (46F) and much windier, with maybe some mist and drizzle thrown in for good measure – a combination that can chill even the hardiest runner to the bone in no time! Ideally, hill runners should consider the following:
- A wicking base layer for warmth and dryness next to the skin.
- Thermal layers for insulation over the base layer (in autumn and winter).
- A wind and waterproof top and trouser including hood – make sure they’re sold as ‘waterproof’ and they have taped seams.
- Hat and gloves (from autumn to spring or on very high routes).
Some races (usually the longer, higher ones) also require that you carry a map, whistle and compass, plus a waist-pack, or bumbag, to keep this equipment in. You might think this is overkill, but this kit is not only essential to combat the (often changeable) weather when running in the hills, but is also an absolute must for those unexpected occasions when you need to stop – eg when tired, injured or lost. Without these essentials, your body rapidly starts cooling, which if unchecked, can result in hypothermia – a potentially fatal condition.
On unfamiliar routes, maps showing detailed terrain are also essential, and infinitely preferable to relying on satnav from a phone (see box on safety later). Depending where you live, different map types will be available. Here in the UK, Ordnance Survey maps are recommended; the 1:50,000 scale maps (Pathfinder series) are excellent for locating the majority of off-road routes but the 1:25,000 and 1:10,000 series will provide even more detail. In the US, the United States Geological Survey Topological maps provide huge amounts of details. Having said that, runners entering a well organized hill race shouldn’t be put off if they are unpracticed in map reading as many races are very novice friendly, and with excellent marshaling, don’t require any specialized navigation or map reading skills.
Hill running mechanics
When it comes to the mechanics of hill running, the demands of running up and down steep tarmac hills and rough-terrain hills are similar. However, the steeper gradients and uneven ground present additional challenges down to the extreme gradients and mixed (often loose and slippery) surfaces. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ technique, but many experienced hill runners and associations such as the British Mountaineering Council(5) and the Fell Runners Association(6) typically report the following:
- When running up very steep sections, leaning slightly forwards and using a shorter, ‘stubbier’ stride, will help you pace yourself and negotiate uneven ground, while maintaining an efficient running form. If it gets very steep, there’s no harm in walking. Research shows that for gradients of 15% and over (steep), the point at which hill runners freely choose to transition from walking to running or vice-versa closely mirrors the most metabolically efficient method of locomotion(7). In other words, if it feels too steep to run efficiently, it probably is. Let your brain decide whether to run or walk!
- On downhill sections, be prepared to constantly vary your stride length depending on the slope. This can range from a long or bounding stride, to very short step-like movements on very steep slopes. Keep your arms outstretched and loose for balance, and don’t lean back too far as this actually impairs grip and balance. Tree roots, ruts, loose stones or gravel and wet rocks can cause you to trip, stumble or turn the ankle. Landing with a mid-foot stance can improve grip by ensure better stud contact on the ground. Look 2-3 strides ahead to see and negotiate what’s coming but don’t look directly down at your feet. If the gradient is extreme, beginners may find it helps to descend the steepest most uneven parts with a ‘side stepping’
- Be aware that fatigue will likely affect your running gait in longer races. New research on mountain runners shows that compared to the first half of a mountain race, step frequency and stride length tend to decrease in the second half of the race, with more variability in footstrike pattern(8).
While tips like these can be useful, much of the technique required actually comes down to practice. As any experienced runner will confirm, the best way to improve technique is to simply get out on the hills and run!
Although hill running is a relatively safe sport overall, some sensible safety precautions are essential, especially if you plan to run alone, on higher routes and in more remote terrain:
- If you are venturing out onto the lonelier moors or mountains, always remember to tell someone your intended route and estimated return time before setting off, and make sure you stick to that route.
- Carry water and food appropriate to the length and difficulty of your run, and the predicted weather conditions (remembering that it will be much cooler, and possibly wetter, at altitude than indicated by the general forecast.
- Learn how to read a map (GPS apps on a phone are NOT sufficient) and use a compass to check your direction, especially if you are using minor or poorly marked paths and tracks for the first time. If you plan to take to the hills or more rugged terrain in anything other than fine conditions, a compass should be considered as an absolutely essential piece of equipment, not an optional extra.
- Carry a whistle with you at all times. Should you ever be need to be found by the emergency services in an area where there’s no mobile signal, it’s vital that they can be guided by the sound of the whistle to your whereabouts.
- Take your cell/mobile phone with you but do NOT disregard basic safety advice in the belief that you can be easily plucked off the mountain with a quick call to mountain rescue. It’s not just that many upland areas have poor network coverage, it’s also extremely selfish to expect others to put their lives at risk because you couldn’t be bothered to take basic precautions.
- Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Mar 8;18(5):2704
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003 Sep;90(1-2):29-34
- BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2021 Aug 28;22(1):740
- J Exp Biol. 2021 Feb 12;224(Pt 3):jeb233056
- J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2022 Jan 27. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.22.13049-5