Ups and Downs – Part 1

Confession time – I drive a Prius.

I know;  that marks me as a tree-hugger, a global warming acolyte and probably a radical-liberal (though my official registration is with the other party…), but the reason my ride is relevant to this blog is not my politics, it’s the car’s groovy digital dashboard display, which shows the gas mileage you’re getting at any given moment.

On level ground, this is about as entertaining as C-Span (unless you enjoy seeing the mileage drop precipitously when accelerating away from a stop light). In hilly country though – of which I encounter more than a little, seeing as how central Colorado is in the Rocky Mountains, not the Rocky Hillocks – it can be an eye-opening experience. Driving Interstate 70 up to Vail Pass, for example, I’ll see my mileage cut by a third or even half, depending on the lead-iness of my foot. Crest the pass and start down the other side however, and the mileage-meter quickly tops out at 100 mpg.  A nicely clear illustration of one of the basic truths of physics – that hauling any ‘body’ (whether mechanical or biological) up a hill is vastly more energy-consuming than rolling it downhill, or even along plain-old level ground.

As a runner, you experience this same truth quite viscerally, and the reason is simple – every foot of elevation you gain in running uphill is the mechanical equivalent of lifting your body one foot off the ground –and that’s hard work when you’re already pushing that self-same body thru the dense atoms of earth’s atmosphere while overcoming the inefficiencies of transferring chemical energy produced inside your muscles into forward motion of the rest of you. Even a moderate uphill grade greatly increases your effort.  (And yes, a downhill grade decreases it, though for some reason the trade-off never seems quite equal…)

After sweating up some gnarly hills, I’ve developed a strategy for making the best of them, and it’s all about turn-over. For uphill running, shorten your stride in order to keep your cadence high and level of effort consistent; don’t allow the hill to run you out of breath. Yes, your pace will be reduced, but that’s a necessary fact – and as long as you keep a running stride you’ll cover ground and build conditioning. The steeper the hill, the shorter the stride, but the goal is to keep a running stride for as long as possible. If the grade is just too steep – or too long – for you to do that, then switch to power-walking: still with short quick steps. Be careful to maintain a healthy level of effort though, and pay careful attention to the steepness of the route. As soon as it levels out enough, you’ll want to switch into running mode again and work on getting back up to your desired pace (a stretch of power-walking doesn’t have to mean giving up on your run).

Uphill running is a necessary part of many events, and also a great conditioner. Best of all, it often leads to a juicy payoff – downhill running.

More about that, in future.

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