Fitness: Go Uphill Faster

August 2012

There’s a certain finesse that comes with climbing because oxygen deprivation and lactic acid build-up are rough on your coordination. Luckily, a few tactical techniques will keep you on your feet and moving upwards. We asked local experts for three tips on how to summit any incline when a tram’s not around, whether you’re running, hiking, or biking.

RUNNING
Expert: Elinor Fish, owner of Run Wild Retreats, a women-only trail running camp based in Colorado, and former editor at Trail Runner magazine.

Run tall. Good posture will engage the glutes (your most powerful running muscle) and core muscles, particularly the lower abdominals. For good form, flex slightly forward from the ankles, not the waist, and keep your pelvis neutral. If you tip your pelvis forward, it causes the back to arch and strains hip flexors. If you tip it back, you’ll sit back and strain your quads.

Take short, quick steps. The climbs in Colorado tend to be long and you'll want to pace yourself to make it to the top off the hill before you run out of gas. The best way to be efficient is to use a stride length that is shorter than what you use on the flats, land lightly on your feet, and increase your cadence, or foot turnover.

Swing your arms. A good arm swing can boost your uphill running power. Bend elbows at 90 degrees and swing your arms forward from the shoulder joint. Keep your hands relaxed. Avoid crossing your hands in front of your body—it causes the torso to twist, which wastes energy. On really steep sections, think about pulling your elbow even farther back to generate more forward momentum. 

MOUNTAIN BIKING

Expert: Mia Stockdale, co-owner of Vail Mountain Bike Camps and former pro mountain bike racer. Their next kid's camp is August 21 to 23.

Find your gear. Getting properly geared for uphill terrain is essential on a long, sustained climb. Stay out of the big gears early on. Start out in an easier gear at the beginning and then, if you’re feeling good, gradually build up to bigger gears as you go. Just make sure to get into that smaller gear early, so you are set up for the climb. As you get better, learning to ride in those harder gears will build strength. The same goes for pacing. Start slow and come on strong at the end.

Stay seated. Seated climbing is the most energy-saving over a long period of time. Tuck your elbows in, drop your chest to the handlebars, and slightly pull back on the handlebars for power as the terrain gets steeper.

But mix it up, too. On the same hill, stand up and climb for 10 seconds at a time to change up muscle groups. If it gets really steep, standing may be the only way to get up. When you stand, make sure to keep your weight right over the seat, which will keep the back tire in contact with the dirt.

CLIMBING A FOURTEENER
Expert: Tara Butson, director of the San Juan Outdoor School, a mountain adventure guiding group, in Telluride.

Stand up straight. You’ll have better grip on the trail if you’re not top-heavy or leaning too far forward. Keeping your weight on the heels of your feet instead of your toes prevents them from slipping out from underneath you. It also keeps the weight of the pack from straining your back and you’ll breathe easier when your chest is upright. Make sure you also step on flat surfaces. Besides steady ground, it creates less work for the muscles in your feet than loose rock would.

Fit your pack. From the start, you should make sure your backpack is the right length for your torso. If it’s not the right size, you’ll carry the weight on your shoulders instead of your hips, which will make you lean forward and overwork your back muscles. For the same reason, you should stack your heaviest items towards the bottom of your pack and keep water bottles on the side.

Pack hiking poles. Think of them as a couple of extra outriggers that not only maintain your balance, but absorb some of the weight to protect knees and ligaments from extra strain.

Talk. It's the quickest way to tell if you're going at a steady pace. Even if you're in really good shape, it's easy to go out of the gate too fast and some fourteeners can take up to 12 hours to finish. If you find yourself out of breath in the middle of conversation, it's a good sign to slow down.

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