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Training & advice

Running uphill and down dale

What do you look for in a race? Do you scour the event calendars for races that describe themselves as "flat and fast" or do you relish the "scenic, undulating or downright hilly"?

Flat running

Whether you shy away from the hills or seek out the toughest there are probably depends on how confident you are on them: not just on the climbs but on the descents too. If you struggle on the hills and find people powering on past on the climbs and thundering past on the descents you have possibly told yourself that you're not fit enough for these tough and challenging profiles but it may not be about fitness - it could be about technique.

So, let's have a look at what is requried and how it may differ from running on the flat:

Flat running requires a tall and upright posture (hips tall), relaxed backward drive of the arms and the foot landing beneath the hips - flat or on the forefoot. The even surface will help the rhythm to be steady and so the pace will be dictated by fitness levels.

Uphill running requires exactly the same running style in terms of where the body parts are in relation to each other but the terrain will guide the efficiency and pacing. The stride length shortens and the runner is required to quicken his or her cadence (rhythm) and put more bounce into each push off to power his or her way up the climb. The steeper the hill the shorter the stride length and the bouncier the rhythm. If you try to run up the hill without altering your stride length, from how it was on the flat, you may well run out of steam before the top. Most runners who find climbing difficult do so because they try to keep the same rhythm and stride length and so gradually slow down until they give up.

Downhill running. This is where things can get a bit tricky if the hill has a steep gradient. Otherwise the rules are the same as they are for flat running. However, descending often requires more control with the arms being used for balance. The foot strike should be 'active' which means landing with a flat foot so that you can push off again quickly. Having pushed off with the foot the heel comes up and underneath the buttock to clear the ground. Running downhill normally requires the heel to be picked up more quickly and higher than it does when running on the flat and certainly higher than running uphill. The body position should be with a slight lean forward.

So let's break down the uphill and downhill technique in more detail. We can break the running action down into four phases: Drive, flight, land, rear leg recovery.


Sarah uphill
Drive - the objective is to maximise appropriate vertical height gain without losing speed. You need to do this by adjusting your cadence and stride to the slope. The rear leg drives the body forward and up by extending at the hip, knee and ankle. Hips face forward. Body is in a near straight line from head to toe with a slight forward lean. The opposite arm drives forward but does not dominate the action.

Flight -the objective is to minimise the time in the air but maximise stride distance. The stride is short to conserve energy. The knee will have been driven high and the foot should be dorsiflexed (toes pointing up towards the shin) like a sprinter so that the foot is ready to land in an 'active' position. 
Landing - the objective is to land actively and gain a smooth transition into the next stride. The lead leg gives by stretch-shortening at the hip, knee and ankle but does not collapse on landing. The body remains strong in the core and does not collapse forwards or over rotate at the waist.
Rear leg recovery - the objective is to move the rear leg into a position to become active in the next stride and to maximise flight. The drive leg is pulled off the ground with the knee leading the recovery under the body and upwards in front of the body. The foot should move into dorsiflexion under the body. the opposite arm should drive backwards, elbow first, to just past the mid-line of the body.


The key here is to relax and allow gravity to do the work. For this reason the drive phase is less pronounced as gravity means that the drive is forward rather than up and your cadence is dictated by how quickly gravity is moving you forwards. You should lean slightly forwards. The opposite arm will be moving forwards but arms may be held out to the side for balance.
The flight phase will be dictated by the gradient of the hill and gravity. You may be able to 'bound' down the hill and have a longer time in the air. However, this will depend on how confident you are in your descending.
downhill heels first
Landing should still be with an active, flat foot and the foot should be underneath the hips unless you feel you are going to lose control or are scared of the gradient and then you may land with your heel first as this will give you a breaking action and slow you down. If you are opting for a heel first landing you should try to keep the bounding in the flight phase to a minimim and take smaller strides to avoid hurting your heels. You should stay strong in your core when landing. The hip, knee and ankle will give slightly but should not collapse.
Sometimes a heel first approach is required.
The rear leg recovery should come up high underneath the buttocks to avoid making contact with the hill and to maximise flight.
To practise all of the above it is advisable to find yourself a training partner, leader or coach who can observe your technique up and down and give you feedback.  Sometimes the way we feel we are running isn't the way someone else sees it. For example, you may feel that you have shortened your stride as you begin a climb but someone else may say that it isn't really a lot different and that you could do more. Remember that practice doesn't make perfect - only perfect practice makes perfect so another pair of eyes could put you on the straight and narrow or on the ups and downs in this case!