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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Trail Running: The Uphill Battle

Squamish Mountains on the Sea to Sky
photo credit: Alley Vause

For those who have been following along, you know that I've been actively addressing my weaknesses of uphill training. Specifically going faster without destroying myself in the process.
The Murph training run was the first step, and since then, I've been engaging all the people I know who rock the uphills sections, such as Dave Cressman from Distance Runwear in Vancouver (his store is awesome, go buy his stuff and make it your stuff), and the manner in which they do so. Here's what I learned, and what I've been practising in training.

I've broken the sections into different terrain types with trail examples in the Vancouver/Westcoast area (cause that's what I know and run and love) and what the differences are in form and technique.

The disclaimer here is that I'm still learning the specifics on a physiological level. Sharing it from the perspective of a beginner trying to figure it out. If you have comments, advice, tips or feedback, I'd love to hear from you and drop your words in the comment box below!

SERVICE ROAD (examples: Old Mountain Highway North Vancouver, Northside Connector Squamish etc.)

Nelson Park Service Road West Van
aka Start line for Knee Knacker
This is the simplest form of uphill running, but can also be dangerous when it comes to pacing. Unless it gets excessively steep, then running most of it ought to be possible. The key here for me thus far has been cadence. As long as my cadence is hitting that 180 bpm, then all is good. This means shortening the stride and keeping the steps at a foot or less. Over striding is easy to do and can really compromise the rest of the run.
Mentally, these sections are hard. Service roads tend to be very boring, and if they carry on for more than a couple of kilometres then keeping your head in the game is key.

GRAVEL or STONE PATH (examples: Incline Trail Golden Ears, Cardiac Trail Burnaby Mountain)

Sugar Mountain Buntzen Lake
Running up these paths requires a real change to technique. This is where I was making a lot of mistakes before, and since using a very disciplined approach have seen huge gains in both speed and effort. I've been using a very short step. The moving foot goes no further than halfway past my supporting foot. There's a lot of knee drive, a forward lean at the ankles. In essence you're just lifting your foot a little, falling forward and catching yourself, which drives you up the hill.
I've found that focusing on the technique of this, before factoring in speed, is an important detail. As my comfort level of the technique has increased, I've been forcing a higher cadence and more "push off" with the back leg. My personal uphill segments have gone up dramatically in short sessions and that will in time play into better results over longer distances with continued perseverance.
Majority of this style of uphill was instructed to me by Mike Murphy.

SWITCHBACKS SINGLE TRACK (examples: Made in the Shade Squamish, Eagle Trail Buntzen Lake, Climb Trail Squamish)

Climb Trail Squamish
Go 1km to the right, then 1km to the left, and you'll be where Serenity and I are standing!
Weaving back and forth up a hill can psyche you out. Largely because you're not actually running on a very steep incline, but the distances can be deceiving. The mental game of seeing the trail you were just on 1 minute ago lying a mere 10 feet below you in the opposite direction can mess with your head. At least it messes with my head. The thing I focus on when going up runnable switchbacks is relaxing the mind. I've been using the mantra, "You'll get there when you get there," to keep my head in the game. Generally, the technique is similar to both the Service Road and Gravel or Stone Path systems mentioned above. Stay relaxed, don't over-stride, and cruise up the hill without going redline on the heart rate. 80% effort is the ideal perceived pace for most mid to long distances as sustainable and efficient.
If the switchback gets steep and/or technical, then changing gears into either power hiking or leaping (mentioned below) becomes necessary, but assuming that the majority is just a steady grade up, then a steady state run that conserves energy is what has been working for me.

NON-TECHNICAL SINGLE TRACK (examples: Lakeview Trail Buntzen Lake, Lynn Loop East Ascent North Vancouver)

Garibaldi Squamish
In most parks or "family day hiker" environments, the trails can go up and down with a reasonably wide path consisting of mild roots, rocks and soft but compact dirt. For training, I've found these trails to be perfect places to do time trials on progress. If a one kilometre section took 7:00 minutes to run a month ago, how long is it to run today? Hitting these sections with a bit more of an aggressive approach, pushing the heart rate as a hill repeat and seeing where the bar has changed has been awesome. That 7:00 minutes drops to 6:50 or 6:00 or even less and the progress is measurable. Using a landmark to gauge is also great. Last time, I hit that stump before I gassed and had to walk instead of run. Next time, I have to run at least 10 feet or further past the stump. As the goal keeps shifting you get stronger and suddenly you've run the whole hill. 
As far as exertion is concerned, managing the run's effort on the same scale is good unless you're treating it as a hill repeat. On a long run, go as far as you can and really pay attention to not over striding and pushing with the back leg versus pulling with the lead leg. Dave at Distance Runwear and I had a long discussion on this kind of running, and since putting it in practice the first few runs my lower back and hips were on fire for days after as I shifted the power to more suitable (but underused) muscles and tissues. I've started to feel the rewards of adaptation now, and hope to see further progress in the coming weeks!

TECHNICAL SINGLE TRACK (examples: Debeck's Hill Squamish, Grouse Grind or BCMC North Vancouver, Diez Vista Buntzen Lake, Seymour Grind BP North Vancouver)

Baden Powell along Grouse Mountain
This is the crazy one. I didn't figure this one out until that conversation with Dave. He knows how to kill it on this type of terrain, and shared some great tips. He has a sub 40 minute GG time, so I figure he knows what he's talking about. Leaping is the technique of choice here according to Dave to run fast up a mountain. This is where it becomes especially important on not "pulling" with the lead leg. I found that once I was paying attention to where the forces in my leg were coming from, I was indeed pulling with my lead leg and not pushing with a lot of force with the rear/supporting leg which is preferred.
The major problem with pulling is that the lead leg is generally over extended on a steep slope, and then is forced to pull your entire body weight from a position that is past the mobility of the muscle to accommodate. Fatigue sets in quickly, and the goal of staying at 80% or sub anaerobic is destroyed.
With leaping, you raise your lead leg, and just before it lands on the upper section, you push off hard with the back leg and land on the lead leg, allowing your momentum to roll you forward into the hill before repeating over and over. A strong arm swing goes a long way also.
This takes time, training and muscular strength. Hill repeats, squats, lunges and single leg squats with weight are all very beneficial in this regards.
Personally, I can do this technique for a few minutes only at this point, but the dudes who are killing it up the Grind and BCMC are hitting 30 to 40 minutes with this aggressive form. I don't know first hand if anyone uses this on an ultra distance, but taking smaller lunges has proved beneficial, even on 30k or 40k runs for me thus far.

ROCKY SCRAMBLES (examples: Hanes Valley North Vancouver, Black Mountain North Vancouver)

Hanes Valley
Depending on the size of the rocks, bear crawling is the way to go. Hand over hand, like spider man going up a wall. Start working your core strength, since you're using all fours to get up the hill. There's lots of upper body pulling, and core strength required to accomplish this well. I have strong upper body strength, and have had no issues with seriously steep scrambles that require you to use both hands and feet. Meanwhile, I've seen hill climbers who are stronger than I am by exponential amounts go at a slower pace up these almost rock climbing like situations because of under developed core, back, shoulder and arm strength.
These types of scrambles really remind me of being a kid and exploring the ravines around our houses in Coquitlam, BC so I don't take them too seriously, and therefore they're super fun for me. There's normally a mix of all the other forms of uphill running from above mixed in also as you transition from one section to the next.

Chains on Crown Mountain


Depending on the specifics of the trail and/or course that you're running, you may end up switching your form rapidly. You could have a few meters of technical single track with a gravel connector for a hundred meters that links into a rock scramble. Being adaptable is important. Historically, I would gas out on the sections that I was weakest at, mainly due to poor form, but with concentrated effort and awareness what I was doing (and what I'm supposed to be doing) has changed my trail running world.


Me, Alley, Vera
No matter how well you run uphill, going too hard downhill can trash your quads and kill your uphill efforts for later. While I won't spend this post discussing downhill technique, which I love, it's important to be steady in your approach. I recently went on a Mount Seymour run with my friends Vera and Alley, and the thing I noticed, especially with Vera (who had a 3rd place finish at Diez Vista 50k) is that she doesn't really change gears too hard between the ups and the downs. She's steady on both, as though she's hooked to a chain that is pulling at a constant speed and flowing through the terrain. I don't run like that at all. I'm all bursts of speed in downs, some flats and minor rollers, and then super slow on the ups. My relative pace and effort is like how I drive a stick shift; constant heel toe in the corners, powering off the line, and then getting stuck in traffic (that's the bonk in this analogy). 

Vera: She's steady as she goes. And she likes grapefruit radlers!
photo credit: Elaine Fung
Hence one of my goals is to run more steady. Stay true to form, and maintain a constant effort where possible throughout a long run without blowing up. It's gonna take a lot of willpower to build that up!


I have an epic weekend planned. I'm running the new Coast Mountain Trail Series course for Buckin' Hell which goes up and down Mount Seymour on two different faces this Saturday. It has 4300' feet of ascent and 4300' feet of descent in 21k. Yup, that's 8600' feet of elevation change in a short distance. It's the equivalent of a 43,000' foot 100k if you extrapolated the elevation change over a longer distance (or just ran it five times)! It's the perfect scenario to practice my uphill on some of the gnarliest terrain on the north shore.

Buckin' Hell: New Course for 2014

Then on Sunday there's the Squamish 50 Orientation run that will take us up and down Debeck's Hill, and then up Galactic Scheisse and down Powersmart for an approx ascent of over 5000' feet and 10,000' feet of elevation change in 37 kilometres of distance. All on fatigued legs, which is perfect because that's what we do in Ultra training. We race on Saturday and then do long runs on Sunday. We're cool like that.


Squamish 50 is a mere eight weeks away (wait, what?!). I'm doing the 50k distance this year, and helping co-ordinate logistics on the 50 miler the day before, so it'll be an epic weekend!
Then four weeks after that is Meet Your Maker 50 Mile. The season sneaks up fast, and I'm super stoked to finally know (at least academically) how to run uphill now! I also embrace it with a positive, fun and much more relaxed approach mentally, instead of the old dread, fear and angst of days past. It makes a huge difference. --[ UPDATE!! Just got an email as of June 19th, that Meet Your Maker has been cancelled. Boo. Will look for another race! ]

Of Mice and Men (or dogs) Squamish
A bunch of our friends did the Vancouver 100 two weekends ago, and seeing them push through, as we helped crew and pace their day was amazing and inspiring. It makes your own personal training that much more focused and the determination to join their ranks, feel success and push the boundaries as simply epic.

Have fun out there, and I'll catch ya on the downhill!

~ Ed