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Uphill running: How to eat mountains for breakfast

© Hilary Matheson
Written by Joe Ellison
GB mountain runner Andrew Douglas reveals the 10 tips and tricks needed to knock serious time off a steep climb.
With 26km of calf-sapping terrain, 6000ft of dizzying elevation, snowy peaks, over 500 runners and absolutely no quarter given, California's Broken Arrow Skyrace - part of the Mountain Running World Cup - is the very definition of an uphill battle.
Not that it put GB mountain runner and Hoka athlete Andrew Douglas off his stride earlier this month. The Scot absolutely blitzed the Squaw Valley course, winning the men's race in 1 hour and 56 minutes - an astonishing 10 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.
So who better to tell us how to leg it uphill in no time? Here, Douglas reveals the tricks of the trade...

1. Shorten your stride

A shorter cadence can make all the difference on an ascent
A shorter cadence can make all the difference on an ascent
You certainly have to shorten your cadence when you run uphill. Try not to run high on your toes for too long, either. I know it’s a natural thing to do when you're running uphill, but it’s a lot of strain on your calves. So, instead, place as much of your foot on the ground as possible to keep that short and steady cadence. It's sometimes difficult depending on the terrain but you'll get better balance and use less energy, too.

2. Lean into the hill

The steeper the incline, the more you should lean into the hill. Not so much that you're bending over your legs, as that puts a lot of strain on your limbs, but just enough to keep your chest close to the ground. This gives you better control and movement across steep terrain. Oh, and it's fine to keep your arms out and swinging as you would have them while running on a flat surface.

3. Find your rhythm

Douglas uses a mental hack to help find his rhythm
Douglas uses a mental hack to help find his rhythm
I have a few unique mental strategies that I adopt when I'm not running particularly fast uphill. One of these is to maintain a rhythm from my hands to my feet. When the burn kicks in and my quads and hamstrings start to tire I tap my thumb on top of my closest finger to the rhythm of where my feet are. It may sound simple but it focuses my mind and helps momentarily distract from the feeling in the legs.

4. Loosen up

Running uphill is hard work for your cardiovascular system, so the tendency for runners is to tighten up and stress their bodies. It's certainly one of the mistakes I first made when getting into mountain racing. Even relaxing the shoulders can have a big impact on helping you to breathe. Focus on being as relaxed for as long as possible, and really trying to use that natural strength you have rather than tensing up and forcing the issue.

5. Choose your overtaking spot carefully

Andrew Douglas in action at the Broken Arrow Skyrace, California
Andrew Douglas in action at the Broken Arrow Skyrace, California
You do have to be quite careful overtaking uphill because you can spend quite a lot of energy trying to pass someone which can negatively impact your race. You’ve really got to pick the right moment - be patient, don’t take a really long path around them, or even speed up too much because it's very hard to get a second wind in uphill running. Once you go into that red zone [where your heart is working flat out at between 85 and 95% of its full capacity for an extended period of time], you’re in the red zone for the rest of the way.

6. Don't let someone else dictate your run

Having somebody to chase is a handy mental tool, but you’ve always got to focus on your own form. Essentially you are running your own race, and must listen to your body. Even if it looks as though a rival is pulling away at speed, have confidence in your own ability. Tell yourself 'Ok, I'm going to let them get away now, but I’m going to feel stronger at another part of the race and pass them'.

7. The stair climb machine in the gym helps

Douglas had to use a rope for one of the steepest parts of the course
Douglas had to use a rope for one of the steepest parts of the course
If you don't have any decent hills around you there are other ways to train. When I'm home in Edinburgh, the hills aren’t really high enough to get a proper uphill run in - so I combat this by going in to the gym and using one of those stair climb machines. You know, the big cardio machine you see most people staring at but rarely using. Get yourself on one: I recommend a fast setting and a session of between 30 and 40 minutes.

8. Wear lightweight shoes with great grip

Having grip is really important going uphill because you don’t want to waste energy slipping where you can avoid it. I tend to race in the [Hoka One One] Evo Jawz, a really lightweight shoe that almost feels like a road racing shoe, but it’s got a lot of studded grip. Sometimes if it’s a wet, slipping is almost unavoidable no matter what type of shoe you wear. But you definitely need something lightweight as well, because you don’t want anything that feels heavy when you’re going uphill. Mentally and physically, a weighty shoe doesn't help.

9. Core control

Andrew Douglas [centre] on the podium after the Broken Arrow Skyrace
Andrew Douglas [centre] on the podium after the Broken Arrow Skyrace
There are few things that I’ve done to improve my uphill running, including extra strength and conditioning work on my core. This helps me maintain my running form for longer and is important towards the tougher final stages of the climb when the stresses on your body are getting maxed. Seriously, when your form starts to go you often lean forwards too much and it becomes havoc on your legs, so a good core helps.
I've also got into yoga and pilates of late, which is also good for mindfulness and they work well at the end of a session.

10. Do your homework

If you are fortunate enough to do a course recce before then that’s always advisable because it gives you an idea of what race line you can take and pre-warns you about anything. Working out a route is tough during the race because you don’t have a lot of time to think about where you are going, so much of it comes down to experience and just being able to avoid the trickier parts of the course.