One Dirty Magazine

When (and How) to Power Hike

Form and training tips to master steep uphills.

David Roche July 25th, 2017

When (and How) to Power Hike

The day before the U.S. Mountain Running Championships in 2014, I was a naïve baby deer about to run full speed onto a six-lane highway. I thought trail running was about … well … running, and had plans to run up most of the course’s biggest climbs.

Fortunately, on my pre-race shakeout run, I met Richard Bolt, mountain-running legend and the current team leader of the U.S. Mountain Running Team. We came to a steep climb around a 30-percent grade, and he stopped me.

“This is how they do it in Europe,” he said.

He proceeded to lean forward, put his hands on his quads and walk away from me like I was standing still. If I had tried to run that climb come race day, my legs would have fatigued, my pace would have slowed and my hopes and dreams would have gone splat. Instead, I walked my way onto the U.S. Mountain Running Team.

Power hiking on a trail run is entirely different from your average hiking motion—both in terms of speed and form. Proper power-hiking form is not intuitive. It looks a bit like someone with hemorrhoids is searching for keys they dropped on the trail. But understanding the correct walking form can make your training and racing faster and more efficient.

Gradients for Efficient Hiking

A 2016 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology authored by Nicola Giovanelli, Mandy Ortiz, Keely Henninger and Rodger Kram (Ortiz and Henninger are world-class trail runners) sought to find the grade when walking becomes more efficient than running. Taking a page from the movie Spinal Tap, they cranked a specially designed treadmill up to 11 (in this case, allowing it to reach 40 degrees, while most treadmills only get to 15 degrees). The study found that “on inclines steeper than 15.8°, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking rather than running.”

While that study looked at relatively fresh athletes, it’s likely that the optimal grade for walking decreases as the length of the race increases and muscles fatigue. In long ultras, like 50- and 100-milers, most racers are hiking on anything over eight to 10 percent later in the race—grades they’d usually bound up. So if you are doing a short race with steeps or a long race with normal hills, knowing how to walk can save energy. Here are three form tips to unlock your hiking prowess.

 

Lean Forward

Leaning forward makes motion more efficient by moving your center of gravity up the hill so you aren’t pulled back down with each step. In addition, it helps athletes engage their glutes, rather than their quads. While there is no exact amount to lean, I advise athletes to try to mimic the grade. So if you’re walking on a steep, 30-degree pitch, think about leaning forward 30 degrees. On a less steep six-percent grade at the end of an ultramarathon, you’ll only be leaning forward slightly.

Use Your Arms

If the grade is steep, put your hands on your quads to allow you to move your center of gravity forward, while also having your arms act similar to hiking poles by adding a small amount of force to your push-off. For gradual hills, you can have your arms at your sides, but be sure to maintain a good arm swing. This is where the use of hiking poles comes in, especially if you are racing in Europe, where they are customary. But note, many races in the U.S.—like the Western States 100—don’t allow them.

Don’t Stiffen Your Legs

When walking up a hill, many people like to pull their legs through while keeping their knees relatively straight. This movement pattern makes it harder to engage the glutes and, as a result, accelerates fatigue. Instead, be sure to let your knee bend as it reaches forward.

 

Hiking Training

Unlike running, you don’t need to spend a ton of time hiking to be prepared. The most important aspect of trail running is still to be the best runner you can be, and learning to run steeper grades is a part of gaining fitness over time. With that in mind, I only have my athletes practice hiking in a specific way in the month or two before a big race that will require it, and only as a supplement to training. In addition, hiking can elevate the heart rate substantially, so be sure not to overdo the effort. Just because you are walking doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Stairs

The easiest place to get used to this style of hiking is the stairwell. Bonus: you can do this practice without taking away from your running training. Practice proper form whenever you encounter stairs, taking two stairs at a time. Alternatively, if you work in a high-rise office building: do workouts totaling 30 stories of up with easy jog downs during your lunch break once a week.

Treadmill

The never-ending treadhill is a great place to practice hiking-to-running transitions. Anything works, but before big mountain races I often have my athletes do 10 minutes jogging at six-percent grade, followed by six to 10 x 2 minutes hiking at 15-percent grade and two minutes jogging at six-percent grade, followed by a cool down.

Training

If you have steep grades on the trails you normally run on, great! Practice the form when it is natural in the context of your run. However, prioritize running and don’t view power hiking as a magical oasis that will make things easier.

Good power hiking is not a break from going fast. Instead, good hiking form makes walking the best way to go fast. If you embrace the power of power hiking, you’ll be ready for mountain-running breakthroughs.

 

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

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28 Comments on "When (and How) to Power Hike"

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keith petersen
Guest

Interesting article. One of my off run days are hikes in to the more “steep” trails I normally don’t run too often.

Good tips. I’ll give them a try

David Roche
Guest

Awesome! Thanks Keith! Make sure you don’t hike too hard on rest days, because it can be stressful too.

Leslie Walton
Guest

I can not wait to try this and use it at the Elkhorn next week!
Thanks for the tip!

David Roche
Guest

Be sure to use a less aggressive approach as you get used to it and find what works for you. So excited for your race Leslie!

John
Guest

Sweet! the Elkhorn’s are a great place to practice! Lots & Lots of hills. I’ll be running the 50+Km. Enjoy

Max
Guest
There’s no much wrong in this video I don’t know where to start. Let’s just say that a long stride forward does nothing but cause you to run into the side of the hill. You want SHORT strides forward. Next, bending over like that does nothing but cause back and neck muscles to overwork. (If that were an efficient way to move, we’d do it all the time! Does anyone stand like that when, say, standing in line at the movies?) Yes, tilt forward, but not at the waist, but from your ankles so your posture (skeletal structure) can support… Read more »
David Roche
Guest

Thank you for your feedback Max! Different approaches work for everyone, and I appreciate your engagement.

Colin
Guest

I’m not sure this articles was about power hiking to the movies Max, as far as I could tell it was about extreme gradients. I’ll take the advice from the 2012 & 2014 USA Trail 10k National Champion and professional coach as he probably knows what he’s talking about.

David Roche
Guest

Thanks Colin! But I want to try to support all viewpoints and dialogue on these things, since there is no “right” answer that works for everyone. You rock!

Adam Feerst
Guest
As a coach and long time mountain runner, I too disagree with bending a lot at the waist. While that engages the glutes more, it closes off the leg swing and psoas. Hunching over tends to constrict the lungs. And, I don’t know there’s much evidence that pushing the quads adds much. Look at runners (or nordic skiers) with poles. They tend to be upright. Skiers only bend to get the full pole push power, and only (almost) when double poling without legs. Without poles, I think it’s better to stay upright, keep your stride short and quick, and more… Read more »
john garibaldi
Guest

FWIW, climbing skate skiers hinge at the waist and bend over in much the same way that David recommends; steeper the pitch the more forward the lean. “Falling onto your poles” may be an element of this forward xc ski lean but it does exist.

Adam Feerst
Guest

I disagree. Power comes from keeping your center of gravity in line, chest, hips, knees, ankles. Falling into your poles is very brief, and only with poles.

SDA
Guest

Thanks for the great article. I will be running the Headlands 50k next month and being from the East Coast wondering how many of those hills are better hiked. Tough for me to compute those elevation profiles! Any feedback is appreciated as it pertains to that course.

David Roche
Guest

Amazing question! The first half of the course is punchy, but should be mostly runnable. The 2 big climbs in the 2nd half (Dipsea and Steep Ravine) have sections that most need to walk. I would recommend alternating with running when you can based on the grade. YOU GOT THIS!

The Woodsman
Guest

Great article and video. I’ve recently been using poles for the steep stuff (up and down). I wonder if there’s a magic grade/speed/distance where they become more efficient? Is leaning that far forward with poles advisable?

David Roche
Guest

Poles definitely change the game! The lean is far less with them, and they can be extremely helpful on just about any grade over 10% I would guess, but no great info on that. Thanks for being awesome!

Joe H.
Guest

Do you have a reference for the study you mentioned, I’d like to read it.

David Roche
Guest
Joe H.
Guest

Thanks David, great read! Have you run across any research that compares speed v. slope for running v. hiking? I’m guessing that walking is actually faster above a certain slope, and that absolute speed rather than energy cost becomes the controlling factor in shorter races. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to pace a 10k that’s taking place on a particularly steep section of the Rothrock Course in PA that you coincidentally still have the KoM on.

Adam Feerst
Guest

Energy efficiency is more important for races like hard rock, but for short races, speed may matter more. Usain Bolt isn’t energy efficient, he’s fast.

A R
Guest

An easier reference for the forward lean is to put yourself at an angle that is perpendicular to normal flat ground–e.g. the steeper the grade, the more you need to lean to be perpendicular to normal flat ground. Easier than trying to figure out what degree climb you’re on and what angle you have to lean.

David Roche
Guest

Great description! Thank you A R!

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[…] Yesterday was Koop’s advice on power hiking hills, today we have David Roche’s thoughts.  […]

Chris
Guest
What you describe is the style I naturally use. I find poles incredibly useful, but I’ve handed them to other runners and they last less than a minute. If you lack arm, shoulder, back and ab strength and endurance, built from a background in swimming, skiing, paddling, team ball sports, etc, then poles are little more than a cumbersome dead weight, and upper body is likely to be on the light side, which is easier to carry uphill. Running without poles, similarly, the runner with strong and heavier upper body might suit the bent style, using their upper body to… Read more »
Henry
Guest

David, A few years ago I followed a Japanese woman at The Rut and every time the slope was steep she would clasp her hands behind her back and power hike. I have tried it a few times and find that my hiking is more fluid and even, then putting my hands on my quads which seems to spike my power while pushing off. What are your thoughts on this method of power hiking? Is a better use of energy?

Paul Durante
Guest

Hello, author! Thank you for a great article and helpful tips! Besides golf, hiking is my favorite activity. However, I’m still a beginner in this sport. When I first hiked, I got super duper tired and took really long to reach the top. Next time, I will try to apply your tips. Thanks for sharing!

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[…] är bara att bita ihop och power-hajka likt någon med hemorrojder som letar efter sina nycklar som han tappat i […]

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[…] 原文作者: DAVID ROCHE,2017 七月 25 日,Trail Runner Magazine 原文連結 […]

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