Six Tips for Climbing and Descending

Prepared by: Jen Segger

With just under two months to go until race weekend, there is STILL time to improve and develop your hill running game in time for September’s Golden Ultra. Whether you plan to partake in only one day of racing or take on the entire 3 day challenge, hill running, up and down, will likely be the key to your success!

I’ve been competing in trail running events and epics for nearly 12 years, choosing to mainly tackle races that have daunting elevation profiles. Through practice and focus I’ve learned how to become an efficient climber and to actually embrace hills when I come across them. By focusing on form and technique, I was able to remove fear and hesitation in descending and learned how to save my legs for the next climb. All my coached athletes, whether new to running, veterans or elite, work on hills throughout their training cycle.

Each of the three stages are unique and your legs need to be ready to take on the demands that the Golden Ultra trails have waiting for you. Day #1 is purely vertical, short and sweet covering 1,000m of vertical gain in just 5km. Day #2 begins with a mix of ascents and descents but ends with a long sustained downhill so you want to make sure that your legs are prepared to take on multiple kilometres of downhill running (almost 20km!!!!) and still have functioning limbs for the final day at the event. Day #3 being a mixed bag of everything including a number of downhills that are technical and steep. As you can see, it will be beneficial to have a diverse set of hill skills for this race!

The ABC’s of ASCENDING

Assume Position As you approach a hill, no matter how big or small, determine the game plan for how you are going to get to the top. This might sound simple but many people don’t think about the most efficient way to climb based on the grade of the hill, the terrain (technical or smooth) and the length of the ascent. Set your body position. Stand tall, drop your shoulders and avoid hinging at the waist. Look up to where you want to go and ensure your arms don’t swing across the body. Avoid toe running unless the terrain gets really step. This will help prevent fatiguing the smaller muscles in the legs such as the calves. Then from that position you can determine if it’s a power walk, a steady controlled ascent or a fast and powerful all out climb.

Breathing Longer hills require that you get control of your breath. I do this immediately when starting a hill that is anything longer than a quick up and over. You want to keep your breathing rate steady and avoid gasping for air. Control the rate of your inhale and exhale. Aim to avoid quick, shallow breathing. Dropping the shoulders and relaxing the upper body including the arms will help promote quality and controlled breaths. For short power climbs that are only a few steps or 10-20 seconds in length, a more aggressive pattern can be established that will almost match the rhythm of the arms as they pump forward to propel you up. As soon as you crest over the top though, resume controlled breathing.

Cadence Aim to keep your cadence (or stride frequency) the same regardless of if you are climbing, descending or running flats. Instead adjust your stride length. Focus on short steps for a steep grade. If you need to power walk the hill, do so with purpose. Keep the legs turning over and stacked under the hips. You want your feet moving and propelling you, rather than feeling like you are hauling 2 heavy weights up the hill.

The 123’s of DESCENDING

#1 Little Effort Running downhill should require very little exertion. The more you can relax and let your body move with gravity, the less energy you will expend and the more your quads will be saved. Think about it like this: How you run one downhill will ultimately affect how your legs feel for the next climb that you ask of them. The first part of your body down the hill should be your chest (sometimes called leading with the heart), especially in non-technical terrain. By maintaining an engaged core yet relaxed arms and legs, this is achievable.

#2 Lengthen Out As your speed increases, lengthen your stride but don’t let cadence drop. If the terrain is more technical you may need to sit back slightly and shorten the stride but remember that quick foot work, paired with high cadence will move you over rocks and roots with ease. Regardless of terrain, land on the balls of your feet and avoid heel striking. Aim to have the least amount of foot to ground contact time as possible. Strive for quick, fast, agile feet.

#3 Look Ahead Focus your eyes down the hill, looking to where you want to go and not at your feet. I suggest a 45-degree angle to the ground is a good starting point. The more you practice this, the more your confidence to trust your feet will grow.