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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, “Happy Runner,” is co-written with his wife Megan and available for pre-order now at Amazon.