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Get to the top faster!

You are either climbing lover or a climbing hater and if you’re the latter, you’re going to have to learn to love it, because climbing and mountains are fundamental parts of trail running. Wildrunner has you covered though, and will have you peaking those mountains faster, stronger and with your sense of humour still intact. By Bryony McCormick.

For elite athlete, Ryno Griesel, who describes himself as an accountant with an intense passion for mountains, “the harder the uphill, the more rewarding the view.” Not only is it about the view, summiting mountains and reaching the top of difficult climbs is a constant reminder that things he initially believed were impossible are actually achievable. “The sense of achievement is addictive,” he says. Ryno recently placed 4th in the Addo 100 miler and co-holds the men’s and overall 220km Drakensberg Grand Traverse record with Ryan Sandes (41hr29min – 2014) and the mixed DGT record with Linda Doke (63h33min – 2015). In a nutshell, he’s a pro.

But not everybody has the natural talent of an elite athlete, and getting your a-into-g is no easy feat when it comes to climbing. What’s more, by being an off-road trail junkie you’re instantly signing up for even more of a challenge, as uphills are made up of a combination of steep, technical rocky ascents, or enormous, monotonous stairs you have to climb. It’s not as simple as tackling a hill on the road!

What makes climbing so tough for most?
“It’s a general lack of mobility in the hips, which means so many runners don’t experience good hip flexion,” says Mike Watson – a sports trainer for pro trail runners in Cape Town. “So essentially, if you’re thinking of your hips and running up hill, you need the ability to get good flexion in the front of your hip, because you are going up hill and your hip is responsible for clearing your leg. Good hip flexion will also allow for better extension of your trailing leg. So the correct and efficient functioning of both your front and back side of your hip area is crucial for good climbing.”

What about the back side of the hip and the glutes though, do they have anything to do with getting up hills?
Your gluteus muscles, AKA glutes, AKA bum, are two of the biggest muscles in your body. If functioning correctly, a lot of power can come from them. “When there is dysfunction though, your other muscles will start trying to carry some of the load, which often leads to injury.” And according to Mike, dysfunction in the glutes is the most common running related problem, and directly affects uphill running. “The biggest contributing factor to inactive glutes is people being seated for so long every day. In the seated position, hip flexors tighten up which inhibits the glutes at the back from functioning properly. Starting from school at a young age and moving through university into office jobs, sitting is a major part of most people’s days.  All the sitting deactivates the bum – so essentially, the chair is the biggest cause of dysfunctional glutes.” And if sitting isn’t the cause, “an unaligned pelvis, traumatised SI joint or old ankle injuries can also result in dysfunctional glutes.”

So how can you physically improve?
To improve your uphill running on the trail, “you have to improve and work on getting mobility back into the front and back of hips and ensure you have functioning glutes.”

Exercises that can help:

  • Step ups

You’ll need a flat, steady surface or box about knee height off the ground.

  1. Stand facing the flat surface/box. Keeping your torso upright, lift your right knee and foot and step up onto the box.
  2. Finish the move when your left foot joins the right. Step down with your right foot and repeat on the other side

​Tip: Activate your core, and ensure your hips stay level during the step up. Don’t slouch into your hips at any stage. Concentrate on using the force from your glutes, and not your quadriceps muscles (thighs).

  • Reverse Lunges

You’ll need a flat, steady surface (like a step) that is about mid calf height off the ground.

  1. Start the move standing on the stair/flat surface. Keeping your hips level and your core activated, step backwards with your right foot.
  2. Plant your right foot behind you and allow your knee to touch the ground.
  3. Place your right foot back onto the step and repeat on the other side.

Tip: If you find this tough, or experience any pain, start without a step on the ground. Always ensure that your hips, pelvis and upper body are in alignment. No salsa hips. When doing the move, focus on using your glutes and not your thighs.

  • A Marches/A Skips

This is a plyometric drill, and will help with front hip flexion. You need an open, flat space like a garden, passage, field, driveway, etc.  

  1. Keeping the toes flexed and the upper torso upright and aligned, you’re basically going to exaggerate a walk. Do this by lifting your knees as high as you can, inline with your chest; exaggerate your arm action too.
  2. To skip, do the same exaggerated walk, just add a skip to your bottom foot.

Tip: This is a great exercise to do before a run while warming up. The movement is exaggerated, so let go of any embarrassments.

Pro Tips from Ryno

  • Mimic the Terrain: 

Try to find terrain that is similar to what you’ll be running on in a race. “We use different muscles climbing steep hills than what we would normally engage during flat and fast running, so training on the correct terrain is vital.”

  • Train on longer climbs:

“Try to find longer, consistent climbs to teach your body climbing endurance. If you don’t have mountains close by (I live in Gauteng so I have to improvise) make the most of your immediate terrain, like repeats on stairs.”

  • Train with trekking poles:

“Utilising trekking poles with the right technique can help you climb stronger, and save energy, but make sure to train with poles if you intend racing with them. On that note, also do your hill training with your running pack, as a heavier pack can alter your body posture and alignment which can lead to early fatigue and injuries if you are not used to it.”

  • Keep moving: 

“I remind myself that if a hill is tough for me, it is tough for everybody. The person that handles it best, pushes on and just keeps moving effectively.”

When to power march and when to run
There is always a trade-off between economic running and power-hiking and experience will teach you how and when to alternate between the two. Ryno gives his advice on how and when to power march or run in a bid to get you to the top of the mountain the fastest!

  • Economic Running

The best time to push forwards with an economic run is on medium incline hills. Economic running is sort of like the granny gear of a mountain bike. It requires you to take smaller steps, but at a higher cadence. Ryno suggests keeping your “body upright, using your arms to drive you forwards and looking up so that you can breathe with ease.”

  • Power Hiking

Power hiking is NOT walking but it does save energy compared to running, especially on the very steep, technical ascents. Power hiking is for the mountains and trails that are literally too steep to run. Unlike the granny gear on your bike, power hiking is the equivalent of pushing your bike. So as per Ryno’s advice, “put your hands on your knees (make sure your arm is a straight line from your shoulders to your knees – don’t collapse forwards), and push off your knee with your arm for added forward motion. Take big steps and dig in with your heels.” Essentially, you’re changing your body into 4x4 mode, increasing power but being more energy efficient at the same time.

Time to step up
With exercises, advice and inspiration to spend less time in the day sitting and more time climbing mountains, it’s time to put your new found uphill knowledge into practice. Why not challenge yourself and enter the Mountain Challenge Series? This year the event offers distances for all levels of ability, and will serve to introduce you to proper mountain climbing! You never know, you may be a natural!

Want to know more? Check out this video to see what elite athletes Nicholas Rupanga and Michael Gombart have to say about uphill running