Verticality, Part I: Basics of uphill trail running

“Verticality” is a term I’ve heard loosely thrown around in rock climbing and mountaineering circles. It means, well, just about exactly what you’d expect it to: sometimes it describes the sheerness (a.k.a. the slope) of a rock face, and sometimes it describes the skill of being able to interact with that face.

I use “verticality” in the second sense, to think about trailrunning.

I’m currently training for the McDonald Forest 50K trail run here in Oregon, which has a ridiculous amount of elevation change—for a road runner like me. My challenge, then, is to learn how to interact with the variables that make the typical trail different from the typical road. These are:

  • Slope (Uphill vs. Downhill).
  • Variability (rugged terrain, rocks, roots, mud, etc.)

In other words, I’m not training “endurance” or “power” for this trail race. I can’t really expand them significantly when so little time is left before the event. But what I can develop, of course, is verticality.

Particularly in trail races, I think that a person’s ability to interact with the many variables present in trailrunning is a much bigger determinant for success than, say, power. While power is still very important, our ability to interact with the trail determines whether we get to use it or not.

Essentially, the added variables in play means that the skilled runner—the runner whose body understands those variables and knows how to use them—will see their physiological advantage magnified over the runner who doesn’t. (I use the term “advantage” because skilled runners also tend to be both more physiologically powerful and more experienced in different slopes and terrains than unskilled runners, because they usually have spent more time running).

Trailrunning is an immense can of worm, so I’ll discuss each part in a separate post. In this one, I’ll deal solely with uphill running.

The typical runner facilitates uphill running by bending forward at the waist much like one does during acceleration.

This seems like a pretty good idea on the surface: by leaning forward, you are able to cruise up the hill faster without working harder. But there’s a trade-off: you compromise the stacking of your ankle, hip, shoulder, and head. Specifically, this means that you put a lot of strain on your lower back, similar to the strain a person experiences when they bend from the waist to pick up a heavy object.

When you compound this across thousands of steps, and the lower back becomes significantly tired, the hamstrings have to step in to provide hip stability (say). Without going into the details, this essentially creates a snowball effect that increases the difficulty of running, and therefore the likelihood of injury.

In a popular video, ultrarunning god Scott Jurek explains how one of the key features of correct uphill running is to keep your hips in neutral position, or correctly stacked over your shoulders. This might lead us to say that the key is to lean forward “from the ankle,” like many suggest. That’s somewhat true, but doesn’t really describe the best strategy for running uphill.

Looking at elite ultrarunners like Kilian Jornet (2:35) and Dakota Jones (1:15), we can see that their strategy for climbing steep slopes is by pulling their foot from the ground and back under their hips very quickly. An easy way to observe the effect of this pulling action is by seeing just how much they raise their thigh. Even though they’re covering comparatively little horizontal distance, their foot has to come up quickly enough that their thigh gets almost parallel with the horizon before their foot lands on the ground.

UPDATE: The raising of the thigh—also known as “thigh spread,” is just an obvious marker. For running to be effective, the focus must be on pulling the foot from the ground back under their hips. While this is fodder for another article, let me just say that one of the reasons runners should focus on the foot and not the thigh is because if we control the movement of the foot, we also control the movement of the calf and thigh (but if we control the movement of the thigh, we do not necessarily control the movement of the foot or calf).

kilian dakota

Instead of “powering up” the trail, skilled runners “fall up” the trail in the very same way that during a lunge someone falls further forward by increasing the flexion of their swing leg. (A lunge, of course, doesn’t have the same “pulling” action as running—the foot of the swing leg moves ahead of the center of gravity, instead of staying under it.) But the point is that in both movements, the degree of flexion of the swing leg determines the amount of distance covered.

While the hip extension of the back (stance) leg is greater in a deeper lunge or a higher step, a greater flexion of the swing leg is actually what accomplishes this. (In running, this means “pulling” the foot; in the lunge this means reaching forward). As far as the back leg is concerned, the difference between a shallow lunge and a deep lunge is not in ankle or knee extension—both shallow and deep, the stance leg knee is in near-full extension and the ankle is close to neutral. As far as the stance leg is concerned, the difference is in the degree of hip extension.

Lunge - fall

Like for the lunge, in uphill running it’s not the prerogative of the back hip to extend as much as it wants, whenever it wants. If the front leg remains relatively more extended during the stride, it’s impossible to (1) open up the compass, or to (2) lean forward “from the ankle” as I discussed above: the slope gets in the way. But if (3) the swing foot is pulled faster from the ground, it can cover a larger distance.

Uphill - Fall

A simpler way to say this is that hip extension of the stance leg occurs in function of flexion of the swing leg.

The key to uphill running, then, is (a) to lean forward only insofar joint stacking isn’t compromised, (b) to pull the foot up faster, and (c) to maintain stride rate, as Dr. Nicholas Romanov (founder of the Pose Method) points out in an excellent video. (Maintaining stride rate is a result of a quick and efficient pull).

Of course, this brings an additional level to the discussion: pulling the foot faster means that the runner has to be that much more powerful, or at least have that much more of a conditioned pull than someone who runs on more moderate slopes.

But if the degree of pull of the swing foot gets to determine how much hip extension of the stance leg you get, this means that the rule for uphill running also applies to regular running. The faster person on level ground will also be the faster person on the uphill.

One final point: the slope doesn’t lend importance to the pull. It magnifies it. (Put another way, the same rules apply to a slope of .003 percent than to a slope of 15. The magnitude of the slope determines how apparent they are.) The greater the slope, the more powerful a pull you need to be able to move continuously, smoothly, and successfully up it.

This has dire implications for the runner who has trained under the paradigm that “pushing”with the stance leg is the primary form of propulsion: insofar as this is the case, the degree of effort it takes to run uphill will be that much greater. The greater the slope, the faster the pulling runner will pull ahead* of the pushing runner.

(What does the pulling runner have to do to win an argument about running physics? Find a hill.)


*Pun intended.

PS. Here’s a great article that discusses several pulling drills!

PPS. Here’s another great video by Dr. Romanov discussing foot-strengthening exercises for uphill running!

One thought on “Verticality, Part I: Basics of uphill trail running”

  1. I thoroughly enjoy that the more you break the mechanics down, the more able you are to acquire skills without merely drilling poor movements. Sure, you can get better at running hills by running hills, but you can also get better at running hills by acquiring the necessary element mechanics before practicing.

    This is another example where deep analysis pays incredible dividends.

    Like

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