How to Improve Your Hill Running Technique: A Shut-In Race Case Study
Devin is a key member of the Asheville Running Collective, a partner in the Asheville Adventure Company, The Outpost, and the newly rebranded Cultivate Climbing. He’s a lifelong Ashe-villian. He had just finished his September marathon, which had a few little niggles - a little knee stuff, but nothing he couldn’t work through.
He only calls about a month before the race, of course. Someday people will call at a reasonable time before an event, but if wishers were nickels, right?
His achilles shows up. Even running around the neighborhood he’s in a bit of pain - tried the way too little, way too late stretching, the Kinesiology tape, the foam rolling, the massage, anti-inflammatories, calf raises, shoe swapping - you name it. Everything his friends and Dr. Google could come up with. It's 3 weeks before the race. He’s got a good base after his marathon, right? So, what can we do? The worst thing - is a little rest.
If something isn’t feeling good with load this close to race time, your best chance of toeing the line is to make sure that thing feels as good as possible. You move from training mode to recovery mode! Rest, hydration, cross-training, clean eating, and tissue management.
For Devin, that meant hammering on some glute exercises to get his big muscles to unload his achilles and identifying the serious hip flexor mobility problems so many fast folks (well, not-so-fast folks too) suffer from, especially after high-volume training like a marathon or ultra. We did some TLC there too.
10 days later - about 10 days before the first Saturday in November - he gets back in and we talk strategy. He is SOOO much better - So first question - should I go get in one last 20 miler before Shut-In?
Answer? No. Did we learn nothing? Let’s not find where the wall of your symptoms is by running face-first into it, okay? What we REALLY needed to know is would it hold up on hills. Shut-In is notorious for its uphill profile, but there is still a vertical kilometer of DECENT as well, and that back and forth can be murder on a recovering achilles.
The key pieces - strength and flexibility were being addressed, but what’s really important is that his mechanics after a long, flatty flat marathon to get his Boston qualifier translates to good hill mechanics (note - they don’t necessarily).
So, we take a gander at him on the hills at our office.
Key notes about hill running - above about a 4% grade - just to where you get off a “false flat” we shouldn’t see the heel contact the ground in most runners, and we should see a higher turnover rate - more steps per minute - because we lose a part of the step length as the hill rises to meet the foot. We should see the arm swing back off a little bit (for sustained climbs) because your hips don’t rotate as much, because you have a shorter step, so the arms should be only as active as they NEED to be.
Downhill as well - think running downhill like downhill skiing.
If you're too far forward, you accelerate, and you will have to work hard to slow yourself up (or completely lose control!
Too far back, you straighten your knees, slam your heels into the ground, go slow, have poor control when you hit the ground, AND increase your impact. A triple whammy of badness there. Hokas do NOT solve this issue, BTW. Fluffy marshmallow clown shoes might be a bandaid for bad mechanics….But I digress.
The sweet spot is to picture your foot landing at the same declination as the decline.
Wait - what?
Angle your foot down and picture seeing it flat on the hill. See the difference - not so much in the ankle, but in the KNEES AND HIPS - now your hamstring and glutes get to participate in this party! So much better if you have the 1st and 3rd largest muscle in your legs joining 2 and 4 (quad and calf) to absorb shock, right? Would you rather have 2 or 4 people carrying a couch down a mountain?
We spend about 20 minutes working on technique - mind you Devin just peeled off a 2:36 marathon, but he’s not a “hill runner”, so was just hoping to run in the front 20 and get some glass.
A few weeks later, I’m driving up to Elk Pasture Gap (the long way, because of course part of the road is closed. Yeesh). And I get up to the front just in time to miss the first few runners. Luke, Michael…usual names. But the Jus' Running’keteers say - hey - Devin just came through in 3rd - he said he’s just gonna keep trying.
3rd? 2 months after a marathon and 4 weeks from achilles pain bad enough that he needed rest? Either he was doping (later drug testing that night indicated only IPA, not EPO in his bloodstream), or he was wasting SO MUCH energy with his hill running that we were able to conserve energy over the course of the race while simultaneously crushing his expected finish time which ended up around 2:24, 5 seconds behind 2nd place.
And you know what he did in 2019, won the damn thing in 2:21.
Oh, and he wasn’t all broken in 2019, so his training was smooth and uninterrupted.
Thanks for reading this far, and let us know how these tips and techniques help on those nasty hill workouts as you get nearer to go time!
Cover Photo by Andy Wickstrom
Want a further, more in-depth review on hill running? Check out this video down below for more tips on your technique!