Mechanics Of Hill Running and Walking

Contributed by Jeff Henderson: MIT Head Coach

I spent the greater part of my youth running in circles being told three things, “eyes up!” “stand up tall!” “strong, fast arms!” More often than not my coaches added various four letter words to beginning and/or end of those statements. As stubborn as I am, and often tried to prove then, those three things made me a better runner and have stuck with me to this day.

If you can remember just those three things you’re pretty well set in terms of mechanics. Take them a step further and you’re on your way to becoming a stronger and more efficient marathoner or half marathoner.

A lot of you will be completing your half and full marathons in areas that are….well they aren’t flat ol’ Columbus. Even here in Columbus we have some decent hills. Proper form on even the smallest of hills can make a substantial difference. First, you will reduce the shear force being absorbed by your body, thus making less prone to injury. Second, you will be come more efficient as you learn to use less energy with every stride.

Many make the mistake of focusing only on the uphill as they view uphill as being more difficult. The downhill is equally important as you can take step to greatly reduce the amount of force your body absorbs, and with the right mechanics you can make up a lot of time without expending more energy! For these reasons the following will break down the mechanics of uphill and downhill running.

The Uphill

Mechanics of uphill running are really quite simple. Remember those three things???

  • Eyes Up – The biggest mistake I see on the hills are that our eyes are immediately draw down to our feet as though we are trying to convince ourselves that the hill doesn’t exist! Get those eyes up! Keep your eyes on the top of the hill. Looking down at the ground drag your shoulders and torso downward essentially stopping all forward motion.
  • Stand Up Tall – Don’t bend from the hips into the hill. Lean! When you slouch forward while heading uphill you shift your center of mass ahead of your feet resulting in an overload of pressure on the shins, Achilles and calves. Instead, think of standing on the balls of your feet. What happens? If you are standing up straight your body with naturally lean forward. With a slight lean into the hill and your eyes up you will keep your momentum going forward.
  • Strong, Fast Arms -  What?! Why is this nutball talking about my arms?! Contrary to popular belief we do use our arms to run and walk! Even seen video of people walking or running with their arms straight down to their sides? How much knee lift do they get? Not much! The harder you pump your arms back the higher the knee lift, and I assure you that without knee lift you will never go uphill ;) One mistake often see when we start using our arms more is that the arms begin to cross the torso. Try to avoid this. Once you arms start to cross your torso your legs start to follow. Equal and opposite reaction! Drive the arms straight back and forward and you’ll flying up those hills before you know if.

Hill Mechanics

The Downhill

Mechanics of the downhill can be a bit more daunting, but again remember those three things!

  • Eyes Up – It all starts with the eyes! Where those eyes go, the rest of the body follows. For downhill running try to keep you eyes on the horizon, or slightly above the bottom of the hill. What often happens is the we start “breaking” on the downhill. This starts with the eyes, head and neck. The head tilts back, eyes start looking to the sky as if we are looking for a branch to halt our progress down the hill. Keep those eyes forward and on the hills. I promise they only bite when you’re not looking!
  • Stand Up Tall –  The biggest mistake I see on the downhill is that we often tend to sit back on our heels when heading down hill, again in a “breaking” motion. Leaning back causes you to slow down and increases the amount of force that your body is try to absorb. Leaning back puts your center of mass over or behind your heels. This causes your heel to drive straight into the pavement causing the forefoot to slam forward. Both of which are not conducive to staying injury-free. Instead, tilt or lean (not bending) forward from the hips keeping your center of mass directly over the forefoot. Initially you may feel as though you are out of control. Shortening your and quickening your stride will help you keep control.
  • Strong, Fast Arms – The positioning of your arms is highly dependant on your speed on the down hill. Your arms play a major role in your body control on the downhill. Again, do not cross the torso! Cross the torso with the arms and the hill may jump up and bite regardless of where you eyes are at. However, your arms won’t be quite as fluid as they should be on the uphill. It is okay to use your arms to help with balance on the downhill. Did you ever run barefoot down grassy hills as a child? What happens? You arms probably flew around like the arms of a windmill. Now, tone it down a bit and you’ll be cruising down the hills!

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