How to improve Uphill Running

How to improve Uphill Running

Some running trivia here - “The 36th kilometer at TMM 2020 was the slowest”. This is based on the Strava data of the top 800 finishers of TMM 2020, the average split time for 36th kilometer is upwards of 7minutes, this is 2 minutes slower than the fastest average split. The 36th km passes through Peddar Road and has an elevation of 25m. It is obvious, most runners struggle through uphills. Uphills expose the weak links in our running.

What makes uphill running tough?

Before we understand how to improve, we need to understand what makes uphill running tough. Since we are running against gravity, our body has to overcome greater resistance when compared to running on a flat course. Hence, we need to recruit more muscles.

Running uphills also means there is very little energy back from elastic recoil of tendons during the triple extension ( to understand more about triple extension listen to our podcast on Running Form). This means that muscles have to work a lot harder.

How to improve uphill running?

There are two key aspects to get better at uphill running.

  • Running form
  • Training for Uphillls

Running Form

Running form though is important for any surface, and it is even more important for uphill running. Here are some key running form considerations to keep in mind.

  • Body Position
    • Avoid hunching, keep your back upright and head straight
    • Open shoulders and Keep the back straight; it expands lungs and allows more breathing capacity
  • Cadence
    • Focus on getting higher cadence, as opposed to getting the big stride
    • Faster cadence and shorter steps make uphill running a lot more efficient
  • Use of Glutes
    • Lean less forward (more upright compared to a flat course) allows engaging glutes better.
    • Use mental cues, moving hips forward as if someone in front of us is pulling with a rope attached to the runner.
  • Arm Movement
    • Quick and powerful arm movement forward and upwards helps the momentum and feel stronger
    • Keep the arm movement compact and close to the body
  • Foot landing
    • It is best to land on forefoot or midfoot when tackling uphills.

Training for Uphills:

  • Hill running: It is no brainer that to get better at uphill running, we need a lot of hill running in our training too. If you don’t have access to hills, running on a treadmill that allows elevation setting is very handy.
  • Uphill intervals: Short and high intensity uphill sprints (100m and less) helps with higher muscle recruitment and building necessary muscle strength. Longer hill intervals of 200m and more, helps with building speed endurance. Hill intervals are also the best way to improve running form.
  • Strength training: Strong glutes and hamstrings are key to uphill running. Squats & deadlifts help. Strength training should also incorporate upper body strength as it helps maintain the posture and assists the lower body work more efficiently.

Uphill Running Tips from Ooty Ultra 2019 Winner

Murali Gaddam is the winner of the Ooty Ultra 60k 2019, with an elevation of 2000m, finishing first in 6h:17m. Murali is also the winner of Munnar marathon 2019, which has 600m elevation and finished in 3h:36m.

Murali at the finish line of Ooty Ultra 2019

We asked Murali, tips on uphill running, how he goes about his training, and how he tackled uphills. Here is what he has to say -

Uphill running is a different ball game from flat running. Body stresses different sets of muscle groups comparatively. Hence training focus should be to bring specificity. Plan your long runs on elevations. Don’t focus on pace, but ensure you can run the hills steadily and for long.

In terms of running form, maintain higher cadence. Don’t lean too forward. Keeping the upper body straight is very important. Here is where the role of strength training comes into play. Strength training also helps in faster recovery from harder hill training and helps get back to running quickly.

When running an uphill race, runners plan and train for the elevation. For example, when training for Ooty Ultra which has 2000m elevation, plan to cover that elevation cumulatively over 2 weeks of training. I also suggest incorporating one hard run closer to race elevation a month before the race. For Ooty Ultra, I have done a hard run with 80% of the elevation and 60% of the distance to ensure my body accustomed to take the stress on race day.

Racing strategy is very important for tackling uphill races. A common mistake is to attack the elevations and hit the wall for downhill sections. For races with long uphill sections, don’t attack the elevations. Run at a consistent and comfortable pace. If the grade is too high don’t hesitate to use the run-walk method. That is a strategy I have used in the Dodda-betta section of Ooty Ultra.

Tackling Downhills

Running uphills is not complete without talking about Downhills. Gravity provides the necessary momentum when running downhill. Attacking downhills can save a lot of time in a race. Here are a few tips to handle the downhills effectively.

However, the impact forces when running downhill are very high, and muscles work more eccentrically. Most runners are not comfortable and have fear of falling forward when going downhills. Hence they slow down subconsciously.

  • Avoid lean back: Runners often tend to lean back, and brake on downhill sections. That puts a lot of impact on the body. Rather try relaxing and lean forward slightly.
  • Foot landing: Landing on midfoot or forefoot helps with more ground contact, and we will be more confident to handle downhills without the fear of falling forward.
  • Arm movement: Extending arms wider helps us maintain balance better as we run down the hill.

Compiled by Team GeeksOnFeet for the love of running

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