Portland is a town of hills; it's the only town I've ever been in where race directors are tempted to refer to things like Rocky Butte as "rolling." So, with Lake Run on the horizon, let's talk a bit about hill running.
There are two major aspects: technique, and tactics. This post is about technique. True tactics will come later.
With uphills, proper technique involves shortening your stride and getting up on your toes by leaning a bit toward the hill. Both of these are so intuitive that you're almost certain to do them automatically.
More difficult is proper arm motion. Climbing requires greater arm-swing than running on the flat. To some extent, you can drive yourself up the hill with your arms. I've heard it said that proper arm motion feels like "pulling" yourself up a hill on a rope. Maybe for some people, but that analogy has never worked well for me. I've also heard it said that the arm-swing literally adds power to your stride, which isn't quite right, either: it simply allows you to use a more powerful stride.
From a biomechanics perspective, arm-swing is simply the body's means of balancing the power of your leg motion. Try running a few paces (on the flat), with your arms motionless at your sides. It will throw a weird, waddling motion into your gait. Now pump your arms way too hard (or stick your elbows out, which will have the same effect). You'll again waddle, but in the reverse manner.
Waddling is inefficient, so obviously there's an optimum amount of arm-swing. Classically, on the flat, it involves bringing the hands nipple high and breastbone center.
Running uphill, you need to lift your foot higher than on the flat (for the simple reason that each step involves a rise). You need to compensate by applying more power to the arm-swing. This allows you to either run harder uphill or more efficiently at the same effort level, whichever you choose.
You may, in fact, find yourself applying so much power to the arm-swing that you need to straighten it out a bit, to keep from causing the hips to swivel. I have to do this when I run hard uphill: rather than swinging my arms breastbone center, I'm coming closer to directing them straight back and forth: somewhere between the sprinter's totally straight-ahead arm-swing and the distance-runner's more relaxed angling swing. Again, it's a matter of finding the optimum, which requires you to be aware of what's happening to your hips (something that takes considerable practice for most people).
Eventually, you reach the crest and start down. Most people lean back and brake. This is okay for a relaxed jog, but in a race, you want to lean forward. Technically, what you're doing is putting your body perpendicular to the hill, so that you're in roughly the same alignment to its surface as you are to a flat one. But it'll feel like leaning.
Again, it helps to think about the physics. If you don't lean forward, your foot is well off the ground at the point in its motion when, on the flat, it would normally strike. You're trying to step on air, so you go clomp-clomp-clomp, landing hard on your heel and braking with your quads.
On steep slopes, this is the only option. But if you lean forward, you're doing your normal stride, albeit at an angle. Everything is a lot more efficient: and without the braking effect you run a lot faster.
That sounds complex, but you don't need to overthink this. Simply lean forward until you feel gravity begin to pull your upper body downhill. Then try to move your legs fast enough to keep up. Be careful, though, not to overstride. If you're reaching out in front of you with each step, you've simply found another way of putting on the brakes: one that can be quite hard on the knees. There's a sweet spot in your stride length where you're going fast without jarring. Practice in training, though be alert for pain in the knees. Downhill racing form is fast and efficient, but you can't do it all the time. In casual jogs, it's often better just to put on the brakes and go gently.
Running fast downhill is intimidating because there's a fear that you're not completely in control (and on a very steep hill, that fear is justified). Start out on a small hill where there's no real chance of running out of control. A five-foot dip, like the one at the Salmon Street Fountain is enough to get you started. Try running through it with a training partner. Have your partner run in the "normal" fashion, while you lean forward on the descent and let gravity give you a boost. You'll be surprised by how much distance you gain.
Copyright 2006 by Richard A. Lovett
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