1. LEAN FORWARD: Maintaining speed on long climbs requires an efficient stride, which means keeping your hips and midsection ahead of your feet, so you “fall” up the hill. Use the stance of a ski jumper: bend forward from the ankles with your shoulders, back, and bum in a straight line. Avoid bending at the waist, which strains your back and throws your weight backward. Rather, imagine a bungee cord attached to your chest, pulling you forward with your body properly aligned. “Let gravity help you by leaning into the hill, and use short steps with a quick tempo,” says mountain-running pioneer Chuck Smead, 56, of Mosca, Colorado.
2. SMALLER STEPS: The steeper the incline, the smaller the steps. “A shorter stride will keep you leaning forward,” explains Professor Reed Farber. Aim for a cadence of three steps per second, no matter the grade, by using short, quick steps. “If you can see your toes in front of you, you’re over-striding and losing efficiency.”
3. BALL OF FOOT VS TOES: Good mountain runners land on the ball of the foot, then lightly touch down on the heel. “This mid-foot strike spring loads your Achilles tendon to propel you up the hill and keeps your weight in front,” explains Dr. Ferber. But landing exclusively on your toes can cause ankle pain and calf strains. “Many runners tend to stay on their toes for steep climbing,” says Burrell, who recommends this technique only when sprinting up short, extreme grades. “On long uphill grinds, this will burn out your calves, so stretch them out by using the whole foot.”
4. RACE MODE: In uphill races, Burrell says, “Abandon expectations for a certain per-mile pace and focus on breathing, form and effort.” At a hill’s crest, accelerate up and over to carry the momentum on the downhill. And at the descent’s end, use your downhill speed to accelerate the first part of the next hill. Ultramarathon legends Kami Semick and Scott Jurek use this “transitioning” strategy to shave minutes off their race times. “If you go too hard, you’ll fade.” Gauge your effort by determining the maximum number of breaths-per-stride you can maintain for more than 30 minutes, and make this your race pace.
5. TRAINING FOR HILLS: Ironically, the treadmill is many elite mountain runners’ tool of choice for uphill training. It allows them to skip damaging downhills and train through icy winters. Start with 20 minutes a week at 10- to 15-percent grade. Add five to 10 minutes weekly, and, if you’re up to it, work up to Gutierrez’s non-stop 65 minutes at 15-percent grade.
Once a week, run up a 2000-foot climb just below your lactic-acid threshold to build efficiency and confidence. If you have no mountains nearby, run the stairs of a high-rise. Zac Freudenburg, who placed eighth last year at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship, trains in a 45-story building in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
“Use lunges, squats and box jumps to strengthen the exterior hip muscles (gluteus maximus and hamstrings), which provide about 75 percent of your vertical power on hills,” says Dr. Heiderscheit, who says the calf muscles produce horizontal thrust and support the mid-foot landing, adding, “If you aren’t accustomed to landing on your toes, do calf raises for four to eight weeks to build the requisite strength.”
6. TOUGH CLIMBS: Danny Dreyer, author of Chi Running and a renowned coach who integrates tai-chi principles into trail running, recommends turning your hips to the side to take the workload off your quads and hamstrings, and better engage your core muscles when going up steep inclines to avoid exhausting your legs.
Facing uphill with your feet pointing at 12-o’clock, turn only your feet to 10-o’clock. Keep your feet at this angle as you run, slightly crossing your feet in front of each other.
After about six to 10 steps, switch sides by moving your feet to a two-o’clock position.