The date: Saturday, June 23rd, 2018. The place: the Placer High track in Auburn, California, the finish line of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It was early evening, and the race course was buzzing with anticipation that the 100-mile record was about to be demolished. When Jim Walmsley rounded the top of the track, a loving crowd roared their appreciation for his marvelous achievement.
Hill Running Q & A:
What is the proper way to position your body when running uphill?
Tall and upright (rather than leaning forward and essentially bearing down into the hill).
This position gives you greater access to the trunk muscles that gently tip the pelvis from side to side like a seesaw returning elastic energy to the arch and spring ligaments in the feet; this allows everything to rebound reflexively, pushing you off the ground towards floating, flying and weightlessness. Harnessing your spring system allows you to achieve a greater loft or vertical elevation with every stride — by making it much easier to swing your legs upward and forward in a series of reciprocal, circular movements. Visualize your quads floating on air.
The basis for this type of running is to concentrate on a light heel touch by applying a millisecond of downward force as the lead arm (usually the right) is pulled backward. The downward drive of the leg causes the whole body to rise and extend so the foot tends to land directly under the body. As a result, the foot actually spends less time on the ground.
What is the proper way to position your body when running downhill?
Lean – Fall – Run!
Lean forward slightly from the ankles (not the waistline) and use mid-foot landings directly under your hips, thus avoiding the all-too-common tendencies to lean back and heel strike, causing muscle pain in the quads and low back. Leaning forward, even on a gentle slope, is uncomfortable for many people at first because they feel like they are close to losing control. Trail running, within the limits of safety, commands your attention and pushes you to focus and keep your composure. Your body will follow your toes but only as fast as your brain anticipates where your foot will land, five steps down the trail. Each foot stretches a little farther with each step, so the nervous system must learn to control the foot, ankle, and leg while accelerating.
It’s a physiological fact that muscles can generate greater shortening if they have been pre-stretched before tension generation begins. The longer the heel is left in contact with the ground while the knee moves forward, the greater the pre-stretch of the calf muscles which assist with shock absorption and provide propulsive power.
Softening the muscles of the feet/ankles, to move more loosely over the running surface, allows them to absorb more impact of ground reaction, to store and return elastic energy to the arch and spring ligaments in the feet on a stride-by-stride basis. The result is a sleek, gliding, scooting quality, and a downright smoothness. The great British miler, Sebastian Coe is one of the best examples of this technique. From all accounts, he would literally “slither” onto the ground.
It’s important not to forget that your arms also have a key role to play if you want to run downhill faster. Push them out, as high and wide as you feel comfortable, and use them to aid your balance – as if you were a windmill. You might think you look a bit silly doing so but it definitely works. Imagine you are on a tightrope, what would your arms do? Now replicate that when running downhill. (1)
Why does posture matter when hill training?
“Own” your physical body.
In many respects, the state of flow that some people associate with “natural running form” is simply what happens when you run in the right posture. When you run in the right posture there’s less need to dwell on any one fine point of perfect running form. You already have it. You were born with it. The most important thing is to “own” your physical body. If you slump, you will lose yourself. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body.
In my opinion, loss of form/posture is still the most observable ‘in-run’ sign of overtraining as well as a major contributing factor to the wear and tear that causes most soft tissue injuries (like Achilles tendonitis, ‘runners knee,’ IT band syndrome and plantar fasciitis, to name only a few). Any way you slice it, a well-trained trunk/long torso has a soothing effect on your legs, it helps to adjust your foot-strike naturally and eliminates the continuous pounding on your knees from over-striding/heel-striking and iliotibial band syndrome. It’s also no secret that understanding how the body works is instrumental in rehabilitation and prevention of further injuries.
The other negative consequences of form/posture deterioration come from ‘energy leaks,’ the most serious being a greater psychological drain on the nervous system. The breach in the runner’s nervous system triggers a higher than desired heart rate at any given pace, accompanied by the cascade of stress hormones that occurs when someone moves into an elevated heart rate zone prematurely. It’s called “blowing up” for good reason.
What are the most common injuries runners can get when training on hills?
See comments above.
Can the incline on a treadmill be a sufficient substitute if you live in flat terrain?
I live in Colorado so I don’t have direct experience with this. I would think that one could certainly supplement/enhance their hill training on exercise equipment but it’s too non-specific to be considered a replacement. Visit me in Boulder and I’ll show you around!
Anything specific you think I should mention?
Approached confidently, varying the terrain on which you train actually helps you become more efficient and reduces your chances of injury by breaking up the repetition of the same motions. The more precise coordination required to accelerate down a hill or to sustain a steady rhythm up to the top of a mountain pass when combined with the corresponding changes in cadence and habitual stride patterns serve to alleviate the repetitive-stress (and aches and pains) of running the same pace mile after mile on the flats. The spontaneity of trail running creates pathways for foot-speed, the ability to surge, change speeds and stay mentally resilient. You get loose and relaxed, your awareness heightens, and your muscular energy peaks. Even though it’s very therapeutic and enjoyable to run slowly on easy terrain, both styles are vital to the art of running.
(1) Tom Addison (ex-English Fell Running Champion)