When your Saturday run has you doing a bunch of this:
It can spark a debate over the wisdom of running versus walking when you’re heading up the steep stuff. And in Seattle, we are lucky enough to have a lot of the steep stuff! Should you always run up hills and stairs? Or are there times when walking or fast hiking are the better choice?
Sometimes the answer depends on what your goals are for a particular training run or race. Are you building strength on hill repeats? Are you working to understand what your perceived exertion is when your run a hill? Or do want to use your available energy most efficiently? Other times, you may just need to listen to what your body’s telling you.
What's your goal?
According to a University of Colorado study, walking is actually more efficient than running for any slope greater than 15°. That is pretty steep! Think some of the steeper hills in downtown Seattle. So if you’re heading up a super-steep slope, walk it to save energy. You might gain a little time if you run all the way up, but chances are you’ll pay for that extra effort later in your workout or race. For our more rolling hills, running is typically more efficient but there are still times when it makes sense to walk.
Better butt muscles
One reason I like to have my runners walk hills during training is it’s a great way to learn to engage your glutes. Your butt muscles are the biggest muscles in your body, yet many runners have weak glutes and can’t even recruit those glute muscles, leading to problems with hips, IT bands, hamstrings, and other issues.
Hills are perfect for teaching your body to use your glutes. Shifting your gait can be tricky when running hard, so I like to have my runners try this when walking. When you’re going up, lean slightly forward (don’t hunch your back or bend from the waist) over your hips to force your glutes to take stress off your quads and calves. Think of emphasizing hip extension instead of using your quads and calves. Instead of pulling your body up with your quads, you are pushing your body up the hill with your glutes.
Lots of runners choose to do a combination of running and walking up the steep stuff. This allows muscle groups (and your lungs!) time to rest and recover.
All that said, nothing gets you ready to take on the hills quite like running hills and it’s important to run hills with proper form. When running up hill, shorten your strides; pump your arms; lean into the hill (not hunching nor bending from the waist) to engage your glutes; look ahead, not down and stay tall.
Don’t slow down or lose your proper hill running form when you reach the top. Stay focused and keep your momentum through the crest of the hill. Then relax and coast as gravity starts to help you down the hill. Sprinting downhill because you’re drunk on gravity assist doesn’t really pay off – it’s far easier to fall when you’re out of control. Downhill running can be hard on quads and knees nor will you make up time you lost on the uphill.
Learning to understand your effort when running and walking uphill is an important component of hill running. Only by running hills can you learn this! You will be working to maintain a particular effort not a particular pace. Sometimes that pace will need to be a walking pace.
What does your body tell you?
If you’re not sure if you should walk or run the hill in front of you, listen to your body. Take it from trail runners, there are times when walking is definitely preferable. Some clues to look for:
So, you’ve had that argument in your head that so many runners have: if I walk, am I wimping out? Hint: some of the very best, toughest ultra-runners walk during races. It’s a smart and often necessary strategy to reach the finish line in good time and uninjured. It may be easier on your ego to think of this as power walking or hiking.
Once you’ve decided to hike or take power walk breaks on the hill, make your hiking as efficient as possible. Shorten your strides and increase your cadence and use your glutes like you've practiced before! When running uphill, you may go up on your toes for better push off, but you don’t need to do that for hiking. If the terrain levels off and walking gets easier, you can run again, but try to judge by the amount of effort you’re expending, not by your pace. Your heart rate should come down and your breathing should be easier before you run again. Engage your glutes, look ahead instead of down, and stay focused. Just because you’re not running doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention to what you’re doing and what your body is telling you.
Walking bonus: For lots of runners, taking in nutrition or liquids can be tricky when running. Messing with wrappers, keeping a firm handle on slippery water bottles, even just chewing while breathing hard is asking for trouble. If you’re hiking up a hill, use the time to top up your energy stores and catch up on hydration.
Hills are a great way to build strength, endurance, and glutes of glory, but you need to be ready for them mentally and physically. How often in a run or race have you looked up, realized you have to climb that giant hill ahead, and slowed before you even got there? Train for them properly, have your plan in place to run, walk, or do some combination of the two, and you’ll be ready to conquer your hill with confidence.