Why Do Ultra-Runners Walk the Hills?

Coriander gives a big hill the finger
How I *really* feel about hills.

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.

Training on hills is an excellent time to goof off.
Training on hills is an excellent time to goof off.

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?

Trail and 100 mile ultra runner who still loves a good road marathon every now and then. Lifetime Northeast Ohio resident that dreams of the mountains out west, but loves CLE too much. Sometimes a vegan, sometimes does yoga, always loves a good craft beer and post race donuts.

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5 comments

  1. Ok, so I get why ultrarunners walk up hills in races and assume there might be a point closer to the finish when they’d start running them, like when road racers pick-up the pace to negative split when they’re confident they won’t bonk/die before the finish. Is this correct?

    One other question I’m left with is why walk the hills on those shorter training runs though? Even if it was 2 hours, I still don’t get why they/you walk them then? You’d think it would be good training to run them on runs shorter than ____ and then walk them in races. Kinda like not using gels in training except for the longest hardest long runs so they are more effective on race day.

    1. I don’t know what the official response is, but personally, I walk hills in training runs sometimes because…

      1) I need practice power hiking. It requires slightly different muscles and technique than running, and I need practice hiking and fueling while hiking.

      2) It helps to remind me to hike in races. If I never do it in my training it feels weird and wrong in a race setting.

      3) And frankly, sometimes the hills are so steep that it is way faster and more efficient to walk than to try and run. I have definitely passed people while I’ve been power hiking and they’ve been “running”.

      That being said, I definitely run more hills in training than I would in a race. I look forward to hearing Coriander’s much more experienced thoughts!

      1. That makes sense in a long run setting, but other than the hill is 99% grade or whatever, I still think you should run them on most runs. But then again, I am admittedly a stodgey old road runner so what do I know 🙂

        1. Back when I was on my trail-running kick (it lasted a couple of years, enough for me to run three 50ks) I didn’t walk in training runs unless I got tired. Same in races; I’d run up the hill until I got to a point where I realized I could actually be walking faster. All the trail-runners that I ran with didn’t have this as a hard-fast rule either. But I’m a trail-running atheist, so what do I know?! 🙂

          1. Ditto to Oregano’s comments! Even a 2 hour trail run means you can still practice power hiking at some point. For the most part, trail and ultra runners aren’t trying to hit specific paces on a training run, just time on feet.

            That being said, it also depends on what your goal is. If my goal is to win a race, I’ll probably run some of the shorter or less steep hills during a trial run no matter what the distance of the run. Like if I were going to run a 50K here in Ohio, chances are, I’m out there to place and will more than likely run the “runnable” hills. Which around here, sometimes that can be all of the hills. But this is rare!