In general, I am always wary of advising a runner to make any changes in their running form – everyone’s body is different and what works for one may not work for another (perhaps I will write a post on this a bit later). However this morning, I went out for an easy 3 miler, and about midway through I ran into a “gonna kick you in the rear end” hill, and it got me thinking. A lot of runners dread hills. However if you can make a few minor changes in your form while running them, they will become much more enjoyable — well, maybe enjoyable isn’t the word, but bearable at the very least! I spent the rest of my run thinking about running form on hills. Having a master’s in pure mathematics, I am extremely familiar with the physics of running and all the forces that are acting on the body as we run (I still remember when I made the connection between forces and running form in a Calculus of Variations course that I took – it was fascinating, and it was hard for me to concentrate on the given curriculum and not just completely on this new found running secret I had come upon!)
Most of us runners have heard of the basic things we should do when running up hill (shorten stride, keep torso long, …) and down hill (open your stride, lean forward a bit, …). I came across this pin on Pinterest that lists off what to do when running up or downhill to run hills most effectively.
This directs you to a women’s running site, but the rules for running hills are pretty much the same for both genders. Let’s talk a bit about how you can learn to tackle hills in your training with more ease and enjoyment. I promise to keep the physics in Laymen’s terms the best I can, and hopefully you will be able to have the same type of an “AH-HA” moment as I did when I made these connections many years ago.
1.) The first thing listed on this site for running uphill is to KEEP YOUR TORSO TALL. When running uphill, the goal is to minimize the forces acting against you. A lot of runners have a tendency to want to bend forward at the waist when they are running uphill, when in actuality, this works against you in two ways. Here is a picture of just a few forces that are acting on a runner when they are running (there are many more depending on the weather, etc., but this picture shows the basic ones that will help to explain why you don’t want to bend forward on a hill).
The arrow with the purple dot labeled Fg is the force due to gravity which pulls down on the runner. Notice that it pulls straight down from your center of gravity (right around your belly button). The more you bend forward at the waist on an uphill, the more that force is going to pull your body toward the ground and back some – this is not what we want! The arrow that is pointing straight up labeled Fy is what is called the normal force. For our purposes, picture that arrow going all the way up to the height of the runner. This is always acting on us, no matter what we are doing. It runs perpendicular to the the surface you are standing on. Think about standing on an incline – the normal force will be perpendicular to that surface (will form a 90 degree angle with the surface). Now think about what that means if you are bending forward at the waist while running up an incline. When bending forward, you are placing most of your body in front of that normal force, so it is pulling you backwards – definitely counterproductive to us trying to move forward up the hill! So, what can we do to minimize these forces that are acting against us while running uphill? Notice that when it comes to the normal force, if we are standing perpendicular to the surface, it is neither pulling us forward or backward – ideally, this is what we want, we want to make our bodies as perpendicular to the surface as possible (within reason – we don’t want to fall over backwards either!). This will minimize both gravity and the normal force from working against us. Keep that torso tall and position your body as close as you can comfortably get to forming a 90 degree angle with the surface.
2.) The second thing on this list is to SHORTEN YOUR STRIDE. Do you ever notice that when you become exhausted during a run, your stride tends to naturally shorten? This is because shortening your stride can relax your muscles and conserve energy. This is precisely what we want to do when running uphill to make it easier for us – particularly, concentrate on relaxing the back of your upper legs. A lot of articles will tell you that in addition to shortening your stride, you want to lift your knees when running uphill. Really what you want to do is push your knees forward in a direction that is parallel to the surface. Notice the force labeled Fx in the picture above. This is the horizontal force due to the contact between the runner’s foot and the ground. It is what helps to propel us forward. Thus, you will be lifting your knees a bit more to get them in the direction parallel to the surface, but you don’t want to lift them too much – lifting them too much will cause this force to have more of an upward impact instead of a forward impact. By driving your knees forward in a direction that is parallel to the surface, you will be maximizing a force that is working for you.
3.) The third thing is to FOCUS YOUR GAZE ON THE SUMMIT. Not only does this “keep your eyes on the prize”, it also helps in propelling your body in a direction that is parallel to the surface maximizing that force that is working for you. This also keeps you from looking at your feet – doing this can cause you to lean forward at the waist which, again, we don’t want.
4.) The last thing when running uphill is to SLOW YOUR PACE AND RUN BY EFFORT. When it comes to running uphill, you want to expend only slightly more energy running uphill than you would when running on a neutral surface. A lot of people see an uphill as a challenge and want to get to the top as fast as possible, but in reality, you want to feel good when you get to the top, not like you have to stop your run. By attacking the hill too vigorously, you will put yourself into oxygen debt making the rest of your run more difficult. Slowing your pace, staying relaxed, and running according to your comfortable effort level will get you to the top of the hill feeling ready for the next one.
RUNNING DOWNHILL – Running downhill is markedly easier than running uphill. The goal is to exert less energy than you would on a neutral surface. When running downhill, the forces that were working against you on an uphill will be working for you on a downhill.
1.) The first thing on the list for efficient downhill running is to OPEN YOUR STRIDE (or to lengthen your stride). Opening your stride will allow you to take advantage of the hill. This has always been tough for me. I’ve always had a shorter stride than I would like, and when I first started running (middle school), I had a hard time not letting my feet get away from me when I would try to lengthen my stride running downhill. I still remember face planting at the bottom of a really big hill at my first cross country meet – I think my pride was more bruised than my body was from the fall, but it’s always been a challenge for me. However, I’ve found that if you concentrate on using the muscles in the backs of your legs to push you forward, while landing on the balls of your feet, this helps. Not only that, but concentrating on landing on the balls of your feet will help to prevent injury –if you favor landing on your heels while running downhill, your shins, calves, and knees are going to pay for it.
2.) The second tip for running downhill is to LEAN FORWARD SLIGHTLY FROM THE ANKLES. This goes back to those forces acting on the body. When we were talking about running uphill, it was easy to see that gravity was working against you. When you are running downhill, gravity still pulls you toward the surface from your center of gravity. When heading downhill, this is the direction you want to go, so by leaning forward slightly you are maximizing a force that is working for you.
3.) The third tip for running downhill is to LAND WITH YOUR FEET JUST BEHIND YOUR HIPS. If you are following the first two tips, this should tend to happen naturally. Picture running downhill with a lengthened stride and leaning forward slightly. As a result, your feet should land just behind your hips with each step. Don’t over think this one as it is easy to lose your footing on a downhill if you are trying to place your feet somewhere that is uncomfortable for you. Just relax and let it happen naturally.
4.) The last pointer for running downhill is to RELAX AND LET GRAVITY PULL YOU DOWN. As I described above, gravity is working for you when you are running downhill. Eventually, with some practice, you can get to where it is basically doing all the work for you. This is why we all love downhills. It is a great chance to recover during a run, because you really don’t have to put in too much effort if you are running them correctly, so sit back, relax and enjoy the ride!
Hopefully you found some of this helpful, and hopefully you have a bit better of an understanding as to why we do these things on hills and how they help. By incorporating these simple techniques in hill training, you will be running the hills like a pro in no time! Happy running! 🙂