Useful tips for running the Pikes Peak Ascent, Marathon

August 16, 2011
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I love running up hills. I love any phrase with the words ascent, climb, hill or mountain in it. I can't tell you why because I grew up in Oklahoma where I did not have many hills, but I always have been a strong climber. I can’t imagine I would be nearly as good if I didn't love running uphill.

As the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon loom this weekend, I thought I would offer general uphill running tips.  These are not necessarily textbook tips, but a few things I think are important.

Photos from the 2010 Pikes Peak Ascent

First, you have to think about your legs and feet. You want to find a rhythm while running uphill and want to have a smooth, consistent stride. I think rhythm is the key piece as using one consistent rhythm (notice I didn’t use the word pace) is the most efficient way to get up a hill. With consistent rhythm, your pace should change as the grade changes. With steeper slopes, you will run a little slower. With gentle slopes, you will run a little faster.

On steep hills, I don't think my heel ever hits the ground. I stay on my toes and feel like a diver on a springboard. I land on my toes, my entire body goes down as I bend my knee and absorb my weight, then I spring up like the board flinging a diver. I really emphasize the spring up part and push explosively with each step. And I drive the knees up in a powerful motion every stride.

Push off the toes, drive the knee straight up, repeat. That’s how I run hills. I’ll run "normally" and let my heels hit the ground when I am really tired or my calves are aching.

Arm swing is another key facet of hill running. You want to swing your arms forward and back with no side-to-side motion. Keeping your elbows and wrists next to your ribs helps with forward progress and helps drive your knees up. Any motion side to side is wasted energy and slows you down. I have worked on my form for years and still have a lot of wasted energy in my arm swing.

Good posture is also important. You need to have a straight line from your hips to your shoulders. You don’t want to curl in your shoulders because that limits arm movement and running economy. You also don’t want to bend at the waist and “cave in” or push out your butt. Bending at the waist limits the amount of air you inhale, which limits oxygen to your muscles. You want to lean forward slightly.

 I keep my back straight, lean forward with my chest and keep my chin up. This allows me to lean slightly into the hill without limiting oxygen intake, interfering with my arm swing or altering where I am looking.

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