Ready to run in the hills? We speak to veteran fell runner Nicky Spinks and 24-hour ultra runner Robbie Britton for a few expert tips on manoeuvring in the mountains.
Running up (and down) hills provides excellent resistance training, increases your aerobic capacity and transforms your running fitness to boot. Inclines also hone glutes, quads and calf muscles and burn tons of calories in the process.
But if you’ve recently tried your luck on undulating terrain you’ll know that running in the hills is no mean feat. Navigating steep inclines and braving perilous declines is hard work, not to mention nerve-wracking for beginners. Need a few pointers? Nicky Spinks and Robbie Britton offer a few expert tips on mastering inclines.
If you’re new to hill running and find it laborious, don’t be disheartened. Even the most experienced fell runners still struggle in the slopes.
‘It never gets easier running up hill, you just get faster,’ says GB ultra runner Robbie Britton. ‘The gradient and length of hill/race make a difference and each runner is different.’
When you first take on mixed terrain it may make more sense to hike the steeper sections. ‘It can often be more efficient to power hike up a hill,’ says Britton. ‘I have overtaken people who were running while I have been walking. Just try it out on hills yourself, find out if you’re better off hiking for just a few seconds and don’t be afraid to walk if you need to. Just make sure you’ve got the ability to get going again once you get to the top, as there is no point knackering yourself out if you can’t move at the summit.’
You might assume that slogging uphill is the toughest aspect of tackling inclines, but running down the other side comes with its own unique set of challenges.
‘I didn’t used to be very good downhill but with practice have become better,’ says fell runner Nicky Spinks. ‘Falling is a worry, but if you can “switch off” and not panic the legs will relax and the descent will feel like it is over more quickly.’
‘Try and relax, lean slightly forward and use the arms for balance,’ she adds. ‘Don’t get disheartened when people pass you on the descents; everyone has their strengths. I make sure mine is climbing!’
‘Lean forward on the downhills, the same as when you go fast on the flat, with a slight lean,’ agrees Britton. ‘Practice on a really gradual descent and get the form right, then get onto steeper ground.’
To guarantee a swift and safe descent keep your eyes on the ground ahead.
‘It’s the eyes that do a lot of the work, so practice helps both the eyes and the feet get better at placement,’ says Spinks. ‘You do need to look up occasionally during a race to locate where you are heading but generally it’s “eyes down” and concentrate on where your feet need to be placed next. In fact, I don’t allow myself to talk when running down very technical ground as it’s distracting and that’s when I might trip over something.’
Take it in your stride
On the way up it may be tempting to lengthen your stride, but baby steps will get you to the top in better shape.
‘I always start off on the descent and especially the first descent of any race/round taking small steps and allow the legs and joints to loosen up a bit,’ says Spinks. ‘Then I take longer strides if the gradient allows. But fast and short strides are best for very steep descents. Zigzagging also helps if the quads are tightening up.’
‘Going uphill you want to go into a lower gear and increase the speed of your footfall. Like cyclists opt for a tiny gear on a big climb, a runner needs to go into a faster cadence with small steps,’ agrees Britton. ‘The cardiovascular system is a lot more effective on a long uphill than the muscular system. Sprint up in big steps and you’ll be in a world of pain rather quickly and not going anywhere at all.’
‘Going downhill it depends on how technical it is,’ he adds. ‘If it’s clear and runnable I like to open the legs a little and bound down, but if it’s rocky or there are roots then lots of little quick steps can be a better approach. Think tippy tappy!’
Ease off the brakes
When challenged with a steep decline the first instinct is often to put on the brakes to prevent a fall, but this can actually make running harder.
‘Braking is one of the things that can really tire out the muscles so getting into a good, efficient flow is important for any sustained downhills,’ says Britton. ‘Pick a straight line and try to go over small obstacles instead of bouncing around them. If you jump to the side then you have to propel yourself again to get going, although sometimes this is unavoidable.’
Practice makes perfect
Even for experienced runner inclines are far more challenging than running on the flat so, like all new sports, you need to put in some time to perfect your stride in the hills.
‘Practice on less technical hills and just put yourself slightly out of your comfort zone when you hit a more technical section and each time you will improve a little bit,’ advises Britton. ‘It is a technical skill so you will get better with practice, but be patient. If someone says they’re fearless on descents then I imagine they don’t have much upstairs. Self-preservation is fine, just gradually improve over time.’
Robbie Britton is one of the world’s top 24-hour runners, competing for GB in the 24-hour Running Championships, but has spent the last few years trying to run up and down mountains a little quicker. It’s working… gradually.