How to power up the hills

The science and the practicalities behind hill training

Houns Tout

by Paul Halford |

As much as we like to remind you trail runs can be every bit as amazing and inspiring as, say, an outing in the Lake District, deep down we know that there’s an unwritten code that says it’s just not a proper run unless it involves a hill. And preferably a very steep, long one!

It’s probably got something to do with the view conquering such a hill will provide on a trail run but it’s also a little bit about the challenge. Cresting that peak provides all the right endorphins to get you through the rest of the week.

And with all of this comes the desire to be able to get up the bloody thing as smoothly and easily as possible so you have enough energy left to maximise that feeling of achievement. So, to get you in the perfect shape to do so, let’s take a look at what’s required.

The science

John Brewer, a professor of sports science, explains exactly what’s going on as we double down for that surge: “There are biomechanical differences – more pressure is put on the forefoot and metatarsal bones as it is harder to use the midfoot and heel. The forces going through the foot with each stride are also greater due to the energy that is required to overcome gravity.

“From a physiological perspective, these biomechanical differences place more demand on the calf muscles, the tibialis anterior (the muscle next to the shin bone) and the quads in the upper leg. All of these have to produce more force to overcome gravity, and, along with the hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh, they have to work hard to stabilise the legs during each stride.

“The tendons which join muscles to bone, and the ligaments that attach bones to bones, will also be under extra pressure. The best example of this is the Achilles tendon at the back of the heel, which is stretched by the increased flexion and extension of the foot during each stride when compared with level running.”

So, the body is adjusting and adapting to what Mr Newton discovered. Gravity slows you down, but physiologically speaking we’re ready to roll.

The technology

Of course, it’s always handy to take every advantage you can when taking on the big G. Shoe weight is clearly an issue – you don’t want to be lugging lumps of lead up the mountain, but you do require all the technical support and protection you can get. It’s at this point we all look at grip, toe guards, mesh uppers and that kind of thing, but few probably consider the lacing system. “By tracking movement biomechanics of multiple high-level athletes, we were able to examine speed, power, explosiveness, and energy efficiencies,” says Bradley Davidson, PhD, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Denver. “Typically, changing equipment has almost no effect on athlete performance, but in this case the evidence shows clear improvements with the Boa Fit System. For these athletes, even a 1.5-4% performance improvement following a multi-week training programme is quite significant. They gained the equivalent improvements by just changing shoes.”

Indeed, tests to demonstrate faster, more powerful directional changes through a seamless connection between equipment and body have shown that the Boa Fit System tri-panel configuration improves strength, speed, and power transfer of the athlete by up to 5% across five key movements.

It’s interesting to read about the science behind all of this and how it is constantly evolving. You probably never thought the technology behind laces – or their 21st century equivalent – could be quite so advanced. These days, getting the perfect fit involves quite a bit more than simply tying up your shoes. Instead you’ll need a micro-adjustable dial, which adjusts the super-strong lightweight lace. Boa has recently even hired a full-time PhD biomechanist and is currently expanding its internal lab such is the demand for this technology among the shoe brands. Adidas, La Sportiva, New Balance and Saucony all use Boa’s precision fit system. Indeed, an upcoming pilot study will be conducted with experts in the field of biomechanics and trail running to compare key indicators in different Boa configurations versus lace solutions and to investigate potential performance improvements. It’s all go when it comes to fit and performance.

The kit

The VK BOA is a specialised shoe designed for Vertical Kilometre competitions, developed by La Sportiva in conjunction with VK athletes. Using the Boa Fit System it gives quick, precise and snug closure, and it’s very light – just 180g per shoe – to help uphill performance. The uppers are constructed using a bi-elastic mesh with Sock-Like technology for maximum freedom of movement, plus there’s a lightweight toecap. The midsole uses compressed EVA with a thin rock-guard in the front section for underfoot protection, while the outer sole uses La Sportiva’s most sticky FriXion White compound for grip. There’s minimal tread in the heel area. The VK BOA works off a 4mm drop and costs £145 per pair.

The form

Of course, there are an infinite number of workout suggestions that will make you a stronger hill runner, but perhaps Shane Benzie in his excellent new book The Lost Art of Running (Bloomsbury, £12.99) best summarises what you need to think about. And that’s your form. His takes a fascinating look at how we often ignore the basics and struggle as a result. He writes: “Leaning forwards at the waist and overstriding, as so many of us do, will load our quads and calves, leave us tiring very quickly and potentially injure us in the process.” Instead, take the time to learn to run upright – which his book will tell you how to do. “Don’t take on the hill and attack it,” he says. “You should be relaxed. Your arms should be at a 45-degree angle and move up towards the chin, as opposed to being led to the rear by your elbows. You do this because your legs will follow the momentum from your arms and we want to be lifting our knees and still achieving bounce in our stride.”

The practical

Nejc Kuhar, a Slovenian La Sportiva VK athlete, has some handy advice for anyone looking for that climbing edge. “Be very creative in uphill training,” he suggests. “Train on a lot of different slopes, with different speed and different length. And of course, it is important to learn how to run downhilll in the way that you recover. It is impossible to recover on uphills! I always stop on the top for around five minutes, no more, before starting the downhill. So the legs are a bit recovered already, but still warm enough to handle the descent.”

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