Walking the hills when trail running – that’s cheating isn’t it? A sign of weakness, right? That’s what I used to think. I used to think that you had to run every single step of every single run or it didn’t really count. I also used to stop my watch when I walked so that people on Strava wouldn’t see that it had taken me that long to complete a mile.
These days, I don’t have that same mindset. My watch, and Strava, won’t combust if I don’t pause my watch. No-one will suddenly start pointing the finger at me and judging me by my pace. In fact, walking the hills during a long trail run is absolutely fine and is encouraged. It’s how you walk the hills and when that matters.
Walking the Hills Helps You Go Further
Don’t get me wrong, if I am running a short off road distance – 6-10 miles, I will run the hills. It’s great training and it helps build strength. The great thing about running uphill is you can justify that extra minute to take in the view at the top as well. Anything over ten and, depending on the terrain, I may just walk the steeper hills and run the less offensive ones. If running an ultra distance, then walking the majority of hills is the order of the day. The thing is, when you are completing any distances over 30 miles, you have to ensure you don’t blow up come 20 miles when you have run every step and your body is worn out. This is when we will walk the hills right from the start. Walking the hills will help you to not flake out during those later miles and will give you more energy to put a better effort in on the flats and descent.
It is Perfectly Acceptable to Walk the Hills
I used to think it was a sign of weakness and that you don’t walk the hills if you are a proper athlete. Then, one day I was out running with a fellow club member, a hardcore runner who I had no chance of keeping up with, who started walking up a steep hill. Once I had got over my shock, I asked her why she was walking. Her response was “if you can walk it quicker than you can run it, then why waste your energy – you’re going to get there just as quickly”. Now, this lady has completed a Bob Graham Round and is a pretty great endurance runner so I took that advice and it stuck with me. First point covered – walk it if it’s just as quick as running it!
Endurance Athletes Power Hike the Hills
Many of the best endurance athletes will walk the hills in an ultra. It helps them to get to the end. Jasmine Paris even practises hiking as part of her training. Power hiking is a tool used by many when elevation is involved. It works different muscles giving the fatigued ones a rest while you power yourself up the hill. The form involved also helps with strength training to using similar muscles to those used in a speed session. Admittedly, when faced with some of the most challenging fells, power hiking becomes getting up the hill by any means possible. You will notice that many fell runners place their palms on their quads when climbing – all while walking!
I then started to ask more and more ultra runners about walking the hills and whether it was the done thing. The response was unanimous “we always walk the hills” The general consensus seemed to be that it keeps your heart rate down and gives you the chance to eat. Eating while climbing – well you have to refuel at some point right – so that is what we did. We then started to train for our ultra while walking the hills and eating. Who are we to argue?
You don’t walk because you’re tired, you walk to run further.
For those of you that may be new to off road, trail and ultra running, you may be battling with the whole pace thing. Don’t! Throw the watch away (well don’t actually throw it away), just get used to not being accountable to it. Once you introduce ‘dirt and vert’ into your run, you can forget about pace. Don’t pause your watch when you climb over a stile or if you walk up a hill. No-one cares (except you). No-one will judge you (except you).
If I go out and run 5 miles – the pace will be anywhere between 8 and 8:30 on the road. If I go out and do the same off road – it will be more like 10 min miles and that’s fine. If I am running long, it can be anywhere from 11-13 minute miles. Next week I am running a 56 mile ultra. I can tell you now that the average pace will end up being 13-14 minute miles. If that’s the case, I will be more than happy. With 7,500ft of elevation, finishing in one piece before it gets dark is fine with me.
We will run at around 9-9:30 pace on the flat bits, the downhills possibly faster depending on the terrain and the uphills, especially around Cheddar Gorge will be much slower. We may even see a 20 minute mile in there. I won’t look at my watch at the end and analyse every mile (actually I probably will out of interest) but not to beat myself up about how much I walked. I would love to complete it in under 13 hours but I would also like to carry on running throughout the spring and summer so finishing unscathed will be my biggest goal.
Tips for Walking the Hills
Just because you decide to slow down and walk a hill it doesn’t mean your form has to go to pot and you can get lazy. You should be focused on how you are climbing, focusing on posture and technique. This will inevitably help you to become a stronger trail runner.
Shorten your stride
Just as when you run a hill, shorten your stride and take fewer steps. This helps you to have greater balance and control. This will also help you to conserve your energy and recharge.
Keep your head up
When I am coaching athletes to run up hill, aside from driving the arms, I actively encourage them to look up. This opens up the airways and means you won’t be gasping for breath, It also means you can see cyclists or other runners that may be coming down and have more of a warning of any obstacles. Keeping your head up and having good posture can also help your mental state and approach to your running, helping you to feel better.
In through the nose, out through the mouth. Taking deep even breaths has a great physiological benefits as well as psychological ones including lowering your HR and blood pressure. Relax your body and mind to help you tackle the climbs better.
Use your arms
I feel like a stuck record when I say this. It’s true though – driving the arms whether running or walking will help you to move quicker and focusing on your arms means your legs will just follow.
Activate those glutes
We honestly don’t use these enough but engaging the glutes and pushing off with your back leg will actually help you make easier work of that hill. It’s a great workout for them and will help you in all of your running endeavours.
Want to discover more about training for elevation? Have a read of our article Training for Elevation Gain