It was a long time ago now, when I trained for my first 50K. One of my first group trail runs was 10-miles run mostly on a two-loop trail. A pretty decently-sized group showed up for that run, maybe 25 or so people, and we started out on that crisp fall morning at a comfortable jog. We left the parking lot, ran under a covered bridge, onto a trail next to the road, then crossed the street onto the two-loop trail. About five-minutes into the run, I found myself in the middle of a long, single-file line of runners walking up the hill.
My naive, road-runner self was confused. This was a run, which usually means, you know, running. Plus, we just started. Why were we walking?
At first I thought maybe this particular group was a little wussy, but it kept happening: every time I ran with ultra-runners and we hit some hills, they walked. When I realized that this was a widespread habit, I finally I had to ask: why do ultra-runners walk the hills?
Ok, let’s be honest. I learned pretty quickly that first day I needed that walk break. Through the years, no matter how badass the runners are, every ultra-running group I’ve run with walks the hills. Like with many things in running, if you ask a bunch of ultra-runners why they don’t run up the hills, you’ll get several different answers. But no matter what kind of crazy theory they come up with, it always boils down to one simple reason: to save energy.
The Long Answer to Why Ultra-runners Walk the Hills
With time and training, just about anyone can run an entire marathon without stopping and finish the race around three, four or five hours. The same holds for an ultra, though a 50K (31-miles), for example, can last from about five to eight-plus hours. Just imagine how many hours it might take to run 50-miles, a 100k, or 100-miles or more! Depending on the terrain of the course, you might run short rolling hills or climb steep, rocky mountains or endure long climbs that last for five or more miles. And when you’re running on trails for so many extended hours, or sometimes days, you need all the energy you can get.
Here’s another way to think about it. What’s the cardinal rule of road racing? Almost any experienced marathon runner will tell you: do not go out too fast. This is also true for ultra-running, where going out too fast includes the usual starting the race too fast for your fitness, but also includes running up a hill at mile-two out of 100. And remember the beginning of an ultra constitutes many more miles than the beginning of a 5k, which means there’s a lot more distance to blow your entire race by expending too much energy too soon. Walking hills from the beginning will keep you on track to finish strong.
How to Walk the Hills in an Ultra to Race Your Best
When competitive ultra-runners walk hills in races, they don’t leisurely stroll. Most trail and ultra-runners power hike the hills; still moving at a quick pace, possibly even faster than if they ran, but not burning out their energy by running. With practice, power hiking can become more efficient and even faster than running uphill. This “walk” can, and should be, a welcome break to slow down your heart rate and recover before running again, but still work in its own right.
To minimize non-running time in a long race, hills are a great opportunity to multitask and do the things that are easier to do while walking than running. For example, when running for many hours, ultra-runners have to eat during a race. A perfect time to eat is on a hill, since it’s much more feasible to do so while walking than fumbling around with wrappers and chewing while running. I’ve used this tactic to great effect by saving my eating for hills as much as I can. Hills are also a good time to prepare for upcoming aid stations. Again, it’s easier to take off and open a pack that needs filling, unscrew a handheld to make it easier for volunteers to fill, or to find all of the trash in your pockets to toss while walking than trying to do all that while running, or worse, while standing around wasting time!
So there you have it. Ultra-runners walk the hills to preserve energy so they are more likely to finish strong.
Was this something you wondered about? Are you an ultra-runner who has more to add to the discussion about walking up hills?