It seems like lately I've been off ranting about every topic except barefoot running. So I thought today's post would be a good way to pull the discussion back to my favorite subject.
I get a ton of emails asking me for advice on various aspects of barefoot running form. The one that I get with the most frequency is "How do I run up/down hills?" They don't phrase it like that of course. That is some freaky grammar. What are you, a robot?
The way I approach teaching people to run hills is the same way that I teach any other aspect of barefoot running form. First I scold you for over-thinking the topic. Shame, shame! Quit thinking so much! Okay...do you feel sufficiently shamed?
Second, I tell you that everything you've ever read about hill running barefoot is probably wrong. There's nothing necessarily special about hill running that would make it different from running on flat ground. Except perhaps, that every barefoot running guru that has come before me has devoted a section of their literature to the subject, or developed a method to handle them. Perhaps doing that had the unintentional effect of making it a different animal.
And of course, the advice that has developed is generally of the overcomplicated variety. I've heard tons of advice on different styles of navigating hills correctly. Whether to use a heel strike or a forefoot. Whether to slow down or speed up. The correct place to put every part of your body. I've even heard folks tell people to go up and down hill sideways (maybe useful if practicing for Nordic ski season, otherwise you'll look like you're on an acid trip).
I'm sure a lot of those methods work just fine. But they obviously aren't very easy to learn, or else this hill thing wouldn't be such a problem. That leads us to Step Three...where I give you a much simpler way to do things that you can learn in a couple of seconds.
Folks...there's no need to put that much analysis into running hills. You run at a constantly varied pitch all the time while outdoors; usually without even realizing it. Hill running is just running an incline or decline that you actually notice. There's no reason to completely alter your stride in either situation. If you follow the MGBG school of barefoot running, your focus during any part of your run should be on my one rule: to have soft, comfortable feet. The same thing should be your focus on hills. You just need to make some small adjustments to make sure you don't fall down the hill or get stuck at the bottom.
But as with all of my other form tips, I don't want you consciously thinking about the adjustments that you're making in order to navigate a hill correctly. This takes your mind away from what is really important: soft, comfortable feet. It also makes your body do weird, unintended things that will actually hurt your ability to run hills. So instead, I suggest the following simple drill.
Run hills with a jogging stroller.
Now I didn't come up with this brilliant idea. My friend Adam Gentle did. And I think using a jogging stroller as a form aid can help you learn barefoot running anywhere; not just on hills. That's because it's nearly impossible to overstride while pushing one. Well it is...but then you'll kick the baby. Don't kick the baby folks...
A jogging stroller is especially helpful for putting you in good position to run hills. As you go up a hill, barefooters should start taking smaller steps and leaning further forward. Your body naturally does this as you push a heavy load up a hill. As you go down a hill barefooters should lean back slightly to prevent themselves from going down the hill too fast. Your feet can fall any which way in that situation because you're going so slowly. You can even shift your weight safely back onto your heels without causing damage. Again, you'll naturally lean back in this way in order to prevent your stroller from plummeting down a hill.
If you're having trouble running hills, by all means please don't go out and buy a jogging stroller. You children-less folks can instead visualize that you have a stroller in your hands. Don't worry, you won't look goofy pretending to push a stroller. You're already the weird barefoot person out for a run. You can do pretty much anything without upping the ante.
I hope this tip gets you running those hills comfortably and safely. Still having trouble with barefoot running? Check out my other MGBG form tips, which I've linked below:
Form Tip #1: Walk Barefoot
Form Tip #2: Use a Jumprope
Form Tip #3: Relax Your Shoulders