Faster Hill Running With Correct Lean

Hills are an inevitable obstacle that you, as a trail runner, will be confronted with. Many runners adopt incorrect form when attempting the slopes. These fundamentals will help you run them faster, both up and downhill says Claude Eksteen.

Trail runners hurtle down a rocky descent at the inaugural Namaqua Quest trail run. Photo Zoon Cronje

Trail runners bomb down a rocky descent at the inaugural Namaqua Quest trail run. Photo Zoon Cronje

Going Up

Extra work is required when running uphill as you not only have to propel your body forward and upward, but also have to work against the force of gravity. This extra effort requires greater recruitment of your leg muscles in order to drive you upwards.

The fact that you are running up a slope will affect the position of your foot strike. The transition to a more fore or mid-foot strike will now be made in response to the hill, which will result in a higher load placed on your calves and ankles.

Forward lean: At the ankles not the waist

A natural reaction from runners is to lean into the incline by bending at the waist. While some degree of a forward lean is necessary, the vast majority of runners lean too far forward. The following negative aspects to your hill running efficiency come into play with a greater degree of forward lean:

  • By leaning forward from the waist the resultant hip angle is reduced, inhibiting your full range of motion and preventing you from driving your knee up during the swing phase of your gait. The greater the forward lean, the greater the negative impact.
  • A too aggressive forward lean prevents you from generating a powerful toe off during the propulsion phase of your gait. To improve your technique, you need to fully extend your leg straight behind you which is achieved most effectively if you are not leaning too much from your waist.
  • Your centre of gravity is affected by a severe forward lean, throwing your body off balance. This results in instability during your ascent, reducing your running efficiency.

How to maintain the correct uphill running technique

A degree of correct lean is advisable when running uphill. The secret is not to lean from your hips but rather from your ankles. This will ensure that your centre of mass remains in the correct position, directly underneath your torso. It will assist in engaging your glutes to drive you forward and up the incline with reduced effort.

In addition, leaning from your ankles will allow you to run tall. This will help to maintain good posture in order to drive back with your legs, propelling you up the slope with less effort and more efficiency.

Going Down

Downhill running presents an opposite problem to uphill running: too much backward lean. This is the body’s natural reaction to decrease running speed as the foot strike transitions more towards the heel of your foot. This type of foot strike results in significantly higher braking forces and a large degree of backward lean will also change your centre of gravity from its desired position to further behind your body. Your feet landing in front of you then act as a brake, reducing your forward momentum, and increasing the impact forces experienced by your body.

How to maintain the correct downhill running technique

Leaning back is a technique to slow down… so do the opposite to allow gravity to assist in increasing your running speed for no extra effort from you.

  • Running tall and leaning into the decline will keep your centre of mass under you, maintaining your momentum downhill. This running posture will ensure the foot strike of your gait will be under you, minimising the braking forces on your body.
  • By monitoring how far forward you lean, you will maintain a controlled descent and avoid hurtling down the hill. As your speed increases, you need to quicken your cadence to keep your feet underneath you and maintain your pace. Focus on landing as lightly as possible. You will soon find a good balance between running quickly and controlled downhill, and moving too fast that it upsets your rhythm and pace.

Remember this and you’ll reap the benefits on your next trail run.

Claude Eksteen is a former professional triathlete now converted trail runner and obstacle course winner. He has an ongoing passion for the outdoors, especially if it involves new challenges.


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