How to Run Uphill | Best Strategy for Running Up Hills


  • New research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology asks the question: Is it more efficient to walk or run up a steep hill?
  • While the answer relies on your aerobic fitness level and the steepness of the hill you encounter, switching back and forth between walking and running, based on your rate of perceived exertion, may be your best bet.
  • Incorporating hill repeats into your regular training will also help hills feel easier in general.

    In the midst of your steady-paced run, you see a monster hill looming ahead. What’s the best strategy here? Walking might slow your tempo way down, but running could burn up your energy, making you more likely to hit the wall sooner.

    According to several studies, your approach should rely on two big factors: your aerobic fitness level and the steepness of the hill.

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    Research done at the Applied Biomechanics Lab in the University of Colorado and published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that uphill walking and running are each unique in terms of biomechanical variables. That means running isn’t just faster walking; you actually change your center of mass, foot-to-ground contact time, leg swing time, and general stride. That study’s lead author, Rodger Kram, Ph.D., told Runner’s World that, in general, many runners choose to run up hills even though walking requires less energy.

    “We think this is because walking uphill is harder on certain muscles than running, such as the calves,” he said. “Previous research has shown that on a 30-degree slope, running requires less muscular effort, specifically in the calves. That is an advantage over walking.”

    That’s not true only on hills, added running coach and physical therapist Carol Mack, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., who told Runner’s World that running is a “bounding movement,” where the lower body uses force from the ground to repeatedly propel itself from one leg to the other. Walking is done by repeatedly moving our center of mass over one leg, then the other. In walking, there’s always at least one foot in contact with the ground, but in running, there’s a short period where neither leg is in contact, she said.

    Running might give you that bouncing movement and aerial lift even on a hill, but keep in mind that bonk factor is at play unless it’s a short hill. Walking requires less overall aerobic energy, which is an advantage over running, according to study coauthor Clarissa Whiting, undergraduate student in the University of Colorado’s Locomotion Laboratory.

    “We think switching back and forth between gaits gives the benefits of both,” she said, adding that it helps to use rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to determine when to switch from walking to running. “Basically, choose the gait that feels the best, and don’t be scared to alternate back and forth.”

    If you’re facing a really steep hill, though, that advice changes. If you’re over 30 degrees in incline—basically a black diamond ski slope or a Vertical Kilometer race—Kram said everyone except world-class mountain runners will choose to use less energy by walking.

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    How to Incorporate Hill Training into Your Runs

    One caveat to the recent study, and several other similar studies, is that they tend to use high-level mountain or trail runners as participants, said Mack. So how can beginner runners or road runners who simply encounter a few hills occasionally apply the study results to their training?

    Recommendations for running versus walking uphill should be individualized to each runner, route, and situation, Mack suggests. That said, doing hill repeat workouts can help build your strength and endurance, and also make those slopes less intimidating when you encounter them, she said.

    “It’s important to have a plan,” she said. “I think people get into trouble when they aren’t sure what to do. They try to run just because they think they should, and then their legs are fatigued for the rest of the time.”



    A better strategy, Mack said, is to start training by walking the hill and saving energy to run the flatter sections at a fast pace. Over time, begin to train for hills by reducing the walking time and alternating between running and walking.

    Although it seems like training would progress eventually toward sprinting uphill, that’s not actually the case, added another study coauthor, Jackson Brill, graduate student at the University of Colorado’s Locomotion Laboratory.

    “Few runners train by fast by uphill walking, but they probably should if they want to race fast up steep hills, because it’s better to use both gaits in your training,” he told Runner’s World. “That way, you improve strength—especially in your calves—and that can make a difference when you’re racing.”

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