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This month, as part of our ongoing coach of the month series, we’re bringing you advice from coaching duo Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypaver. When it comes to experience on the trails Sage and Sandi are two of the best in the business. Sandi is a USATF certified coach who competed for Team USA at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships this summer, while Sage is a professional Mountain Ultra-Trail Runner with a handy 2 hour, 16-minute marathon best. They can be found sharing their wisdom through their coaching business, Sage Running. “Our motto is athlete empowerment. We want to provide informative content that helps everyone achieve their goals,” said Sage.

Here Sage and Sandi share some tips on how to tackle hills. Although we can’t promise they can turn you into a mountain goat these tips should help you feel a bit more confident next time you tackle a tough hill.

Be sure to scroll down to the bottom to check out their other tips on trail running.

There’s nothing like a good climb to challenge us both physically and mentally. Do you feel defeated before you even start running up a hill or do you embrace the challenge? On the downhills do you let your legs fly or do you run with caution? No matter what level you’re at right now, we’re here to give you some of our best tips to get you to face any hill with your best foot forward.

Uphill Running Form

Efficiency on uphills definitely involves thinking about your running form. Often cadence (how many strides you take in a minute) will drop as your pace slows. At certain steep grades or on a particularly tough hill, it may actually be faster and more efficient for you to “powerhike.” If you use a GPS to track some of your running metrics on Strava you may see your stride rate drop down to 160 or even only 150 steps per minute. This is okay and perfectly natural for uphill running! On the other hand, if the uphill is smooth, you might find it more efficient to keep a slighter higher cadence closer to 170 steps per minute.

When you’re running uphill you should also focus on lifting your knees up slightly higher than normal as well as pumping your arms a bit more forcefully. However, you still want to be taking relatively short and quick steps while you climb. You should be landing up closer to your toes on the balls of your feet in your forefoot.

Finally, you want to think of “leaning into the hill” from your ankles. Don’t hunch over by bending your waist, and focus on keeping your head and chest up to open up your breathing. It is okay to look down at your feet sometimes, but try to keep your gaze at least 10 to 20 feet up the hill in front of you. Don’t forget about those glutes! Many people resort to powering up a hill with their quads, but if you can engage your glutes (think “butt muscle”) you’ll get more power and won’t wear out your quads as fast.

Uphill Pacing

The most common mistake people make when they start an uphill is to start climbing too aggressively. Generally it is much better to start conservatively and definitely don’t try to “blast” long uphills. If the hill is particularly long and steep (and/or you are racing a long distance with multiple climbs later on) it is even more important to start off “slow and steady.” As you make your way up the hill you can always speed up if you think you started too slowly – however if you you didn’t pace yourself appropriately you will likely be drastically slowing and running out of steam before the top of the hill! As you are about to crest the top of the hill it is also a powerful race strategy to try to accelerate up and over the crest so that you can carry some momentum into the downhill! Those that started the climb too quickly are usually gasping and slowing as they reach the top.

Mental Tips

Attitude Adaptation #1: “Hills are your friend.” repeat this mantra. As coaches we’ve had a lot of people come to us saying something along the lines of “I’m terrible running hills.” While we appreciate their honesty, repeating thoughts like that to yourself is ensuring you don’t make improvements. For many many people forcing the thought “I’m a great hill runner” won’t work either, but you can try something along the lines of “I’m constantly improving.” Find a thought that works for you and embrace the challenge head on. It may even be helpful to smile every time you see a hill since that’s sending a message to your body that all is well. If you’ve got a long climb ahead of you, try to stay in the moment. Don’t worry about how much farther you have to run uphill exactly (although be generally aware how long the hill might be so you can pace yourself appropriately!). All you ever have to do is your best in the current moment.


Downhill Running Form

This may be even more important than proper uphill running form as the chance of injury is so much higher due to the stress downhill places on your body. However spectating at races we constantly see people leaning back, taking heavy steps, and losing all sense of good form. Not only are you putting on the brakes more than necessary, but you’re asking for knee pain and an unnecessary amount of quad damage. Instead, try to remain tall while taking quick steps, focusing on trying to stay light on your feet. Taking small steps, especially on technical trails, can give you the security of knowing you can slow down in a few steps instead of having to lean back. On a steep downhill it will be necessary to lean back a little, but again, the small and quicks steps will ensure you’re not beating up your quads. On technical downhills it can also help to hold your arms out wider than normal for balance.

Downhill Pacing

This largely depends on how far you’re going, but generally you don’t want to “bomb” a downhill right from the start. By all means use gravity and good form to run fast, but hold back enough that you’re saving your legs for later in the race. If it is the last downhill sprint to the finish line or a short downhill near the end of the race, then you can give it everything you’ve got!

Mental Approach

Run like a dog! Well maybe not like a Bernese Mountain dog in the summer (It’s impossible to not smile when seeing a Bernese Mountain dog, right?) Run like a dog in the sense that you’re somewhat relaxed, yet still maintaining an intense focus. If focusing isn’t your strong point, this is something that can be worked on through practice, especially on technical downhills. We’ve had a lot of athletes tell us that simply using the word “focus” has helped them improve their technical downhill skills, along with remembering to breathe. If you’re someone who currently tenses up whenever you see some rocks on a trail, you know that taking deep enough breaths doesn’t always come naturally. Attitude Adaptation #2: Another aspect of running like a dog is to have fun and enjoy the experience of the present challenge! On your next run with hills, make it a goal to enjoy the downhills as much as possible and imagine you are flowing over the ground.

Bonus Tip

We know it can get overwhelming to think about all the aspects of proper running form while actually running. Instead you can visualize yourself running with perfect form in your head and your body will be likely to follow suit. Think of one aspect of your form for a few minutes at a time (i.e. foot placement, body lean etc).

Follow Sage and Sandi and check out more trail running advice from them below. 

Consistent Variation: An Introduction to Periodized Training

Embracing the Challenge: The Mental Side of Running

Trail Running Speed Workouts