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Hill Running

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Running hills regularly will make you a stronger, hence faster, runner. The trick is to run them so that you don't injure yourself.....which is more often caused by downhill, not uphill, running as many people think.....to cope with the "difficulty" of running uphill and to run both uphill and downhill with optimum running economy. Fortunately, there are techniques to deal with these objectives.

Hill running techniques fall into two categories.....physical and mental.

On the physical side, the key things are a forward lean, stride adjustments, use of your arms, footstrike and maintaining a steady level of perceived effort.

It's important to lean forward, not backward, when running both uphill and downhill....lean into the hill when running uphill and away from it when running downhill. Leaning forward does not mean bending forward at the waist, which is a natural reaction to running uphill. Bending at the waist has two negative consequences which will make your task much tougher. It pushes your hips and buttocks back to compensate for the forward lean of your upper body in order to maintain your center of gravity over your feet. That distorts running form and reduces running economy. It also compresses your lungs slightly and restricts their ability to expand, which reduces your air intake.....just what you don't need when running. And, it doesn't take much of a bend. Experiment with bending forward while running comfortably on level ground and you will be able to detect the effect on lung expansion.

A proper forward lean is done at the ankle while keeping the body "erect" with head, torso, hips, and feet aligned. Thus, when going uphill, your body should not be perpendicular to the surface you are running on, but should remain vertical with your center of gravity still over your leading foot.

When going downhill, the tendency is to "hold back" to control your pace by leaning back at the ankles to remain vertical. That's a mistake. It causes your foot strike to move ahead of your center of gravity and results in a braking action and jambs your feet to the front of your shoes. It also results in a hard heel strike. Run downhill as if you were running on level ground. Stay perpendicular to the surface you are running on, which will require a forward lean relative to the vertical, and let the force of gravity work for you. Don't worry. No matter how steep the hill, your legs will keep up and keep you from falling forward. It's called "falling down the hill", or "throwing yourself down the hill." I call it a free ride. Control downhill speed with the combination of forward lean and stride length.

My points of focus to maintain proper posture over a hill are my hips and chest. I concentrate on pressing them forward into the hill when going uphill and away from the hill when going downhill, which prevents bending at the waist, ensures a forward lean and maintains an erect body.

When running uphill, increase stride rate and shorten your stride slightly, which will keep your center of gravity over or slightly ahead of your lead foot, and lift your knees a little more than usual on the flats. Also, increase your arm swing slightly. Driving the arms a little harder will help to overcome the pull of gravity.

When running downhill, lengthen your stride a little and pay attention to your footstrike. Avoid hard heel strikes, which indicates that you are leaning back and overstriding with your knees too straight or locked and a lot of shock transmitted to your legs, knees, and hips. Try to land midfoot or forefoot with your knees flexed. A gentle heel strike followed by a quick roll onto the forefoot is OK if "forcing" a midfoot landing isn't comfortable. Unlike running uphill, an exaggerated arm swing is counter-productive when running downhill. Gravity provides the power going downhill. The arms are used mostly to maintain balance and rhythm.

The main thing to do to prevent injury and trashing quads when running hills is to minimize the pounding of downhill running by leaning forward and avoiding hard heel strikes.

Maintain a steady level of perceived effort, not pace, over hills. Keep the effort the same as if you were running on level ground. Thus, your pace will be slower when going uphill and faster going downhill than running on flat ground at the same perceived level of effort.

On the mental side, there are a couple of tricks that you can use when running uphill. First, don't run the whole uphill in one piece, run segments of it. Select a spot 20 yards ahead of you and run to it. Then pick another spot and run to it. Keep repeating your "20 yard hills" and you will get to the top easier than tackling a long hill in its entirety, which can be intimidating. When you can see the crest of the hill before you, push over the top and don't let up, because it is about to get easier.

Another mental trick is to imagine a rope going up the hill ahead of you. Picture yourself grasping the rope with your hands and pulling yourself up the hill.

If you master proper techniques of hill running, you should be able to handle them without any significant increase of injury risk. For 6 years, I did most of my training on one and two mile loops in a park that had a very challenging hill. One third of every loop was uphill, one third downhill and one third flat. The constant hill running didn't cause me to incur any injuries, but it sure made me a stronger, faster runner....and a better hill runner. Hill running is currently a missing element from my training, since I now train on a trail in Maryland half the year and a beach in Florida the other half....both are mostly flat.

Hope some of this helps. Good luck with your program!