Updated: Jul 13
“You are only as fast as your slowest mile.”
– Ian Sharman
This quote has stuck with me since I heard Ian say this on the Science of Ultra podcast a few years ago. Most runners are incredibly focused on making their quickest miles faster (your running miles), but what about your slowest miles (hiking miles)?
For most runners, it is difficult to make their ultra-race distance running speed significantly faster, but most runners have a lot of room for growth with their hiking speed (especially hill hiking speed!). For example, if someone’s running pace during an ultra is 10-minute/mile, dropping that down to 9:45 will take months or even years to accomplish. But if that same person hikes at an 18 minutes/mile pace, it will be much easier for them to take 2-3 minutes (or more!) off their hiking time!
Now let’s think about how this applies to a race!
Let’s say someone is running a 50-mile race and they run 60% of it and hike 40% of it. The first row is their PR and the time they want to beat.
If the runner wants to have a 12-minute PR (finish time of 9:48), they can either run 15 seconds/mile faster for 60% of the race OR hike 1 min/mile faster for 40% of the race. Finish with the same PR time but with less effort? Sign me up!
Another way to think about this is that if someone continues to run at a 10-minute pace but decreases their hiking pace from 17 min/mile to 16 min/mile, they can hike 5% more of the race and still finish in 10 hours! AMAZING!
Why is hill hiking an important skill?
I think Jim Walsmley nailed it in this podcast when he said this about French elite ultra-runner, Francois D’Haine:
“I am just continually amazed at how talented of a hiker he is. Honestly it is one of his super skills…in the best way possible. In my opinion, I think it keeps your heart rate down, your metabolism down, your sweat rate down, like all of these things that are more maintainable.”
The key point here is that hiking is more maintainable for long periods of time than running and it puts less stress on the body. This is super important for ultra-running success since runners need to maintain a steady, lower effort, state for long periods of time during their race. If we are not able to keep a pace that is maintainable, then what ends up happening is that runners have a solid first half of the race and a “crash and burn” situation the second half of the race. The WHOLE race is what matters in the end.
By improving our hiking speed and endurance, we can do the following during an ultra-distance race:
Impose less tissue damage to our body, which helps us feel less sore and feel stronger at the end of the race
Keep our heart rate down, which helps keep the cardiorespiratory stress low and our metabolic systems don’t have to work as hard
Going slower can help people push off experiencing GI issues and take in more calories since there is less overall stress on the body
Keeps our body temperature lower, which helps our bodies to not have to work so hard to keep the body cool
Now apply this to hiking hills during a race: A lot of people slow down significantly when they start going up a hill. They experience a lot of muscle fatigue, their heart rate spikes, and their breathing rate increases. Often, at the beginning of a race, people run the hills vs hike them. This puts a ton of stress on the body! Let's say someone practices their hill hiking during training and HIKES all of the hills during their ultra vs runs them. By hiking the hills, they are spending more time during the race at maintainable pace and an effort that causes less stress to the body. By doing so, they will be able to maintain their overall pace for longer periods of time, avoid the dreaded “crash and burn” situation during the last half of the race!
My hill hiking story
Throughout my years running ultras, I couldn’t tell you how many times the people around me have said, “Wow, you hike fast!” I think my fast-walking skills come from waiting tables for over 7 years and in general, I am always walking like I am on a mission!
During my ultra-races, I do a lot of hiking during the first half of the race, especially up the hills (this applies for races that are 50+ miles on trails). It is not uncommon for other runners around me to run up the hills while I am hiking! I can stay close to them when going up the hills because my hill hiking pace is often very close to their hill running pace! After we reach the top of the hill, I quickly catch back up to them. Why? Hiking the hills helps me keep my heart rate down, breathing down, and overall effort down during the hills, so that I can bounce back into running quickly without feeling worn out.
During the second half of races, the other runners are often still trying to run up the hills or they have nothing left in the tank so resort to hiking up the hills…very slowly since this isn’t something they focused on in training. What I have found is that I end up passing a lot of people the second half of an ultra because I hike faster than their back-half running pace and I hike significantly faster than their hiking pace! In general, I seemed to be fresher at the end of a race compared to those I was passing because I didn’t do as much running during the first half of the race!
In training, I incorporated specific hill hiking training sessions where I would hit up the biggest hill nearby or go to ski hills and practice hiking with intention. What I have found is that my power, speed, and endurance with hill hiking AND hiking flat terrain has improved, allowing me to complete races with a lot of vertical gain (like Big Horn 100) and finish long ultras while hiking most of the race (like Black Hills 100).
I work with some amazing clients who have worked hard at their hill hiking skills! Here are some of their stories:
I am a back-of-the-pack trail runner who used to dread hills. I love trail running but saw hills as a big obstacle; they would stress me out. Once I incorporated dedicated hill hiking into my workouts and my race plan, my whole outlook changed. First, I didn't realize that learning *how* to hike hills effectively is a skill, like everything else in running. Second, adding hill hiking workouts has made me stronger. It is a great way to get in an additional strength and cardio workout and increase vert and mileage. Third, adding hill hiking has helped my mental gains as much as my physical ones. It didn't matter how strong I was getting if my brain kept telling me that "I can't do this" or "I am not good at hills," severely impacting my love of trail running. My weekly workouts allow me to change my hill narrative, which is no easy feat during the summer on a ski hill (and your coach has you doing heat training 😁). Finally, I prefer hiking hills because it gives my brain and body a mental break and uses muscles differently. Being out on a trail for hours, my body and mind need something different, and hills are an intentional way to build in those kinds of breaks while still moving well. I now pass other runners on hills and am more consistent in my workouts and races.
Hiking is literally my secret weapon in ultras. The longer the race, the more important this skill is. When I was training for Tahoe 200 miler, 20-30% of my training miles were hiking miles. If I had a do over, I would have upped that to 50-60% based on how much hiking I did in the race! IMPORTANT: Just like running, hiking is a skill that needs to be developed over time!! If you want to maximize your hiking efficiency, increase your hiking pace, and reduce the overall load that hiking has on your body, you need to do it consistently EVERY WEEK! When you are extremely efficient at hiking, you will look forward to the uphill sections and make up ground on faster runners. There is no better feeling than passing people WITH A SMILE on a steep uphill while cruising past someone that is struggling. You will also avoid dropping out late into races because of your hiking efficiency gains! 😀 Lastly, find a hard hiking form that works for you. I’m an arm pumper. I’ve seen others put hands on knees and even hands behind back while leaning forward.
In my limited experience, hard hiking skills are imperative to having success in trail running. I finished the Gary Bjorkland Half Marathon in the bottom 32%. A couple months later of intense hill hiking and trail running training, I finished in the top 48% of runners at Harder than Heck Half Marathon. That has 2,800+ ft of elevation. I didn’t run a faster per mile time, but I was consistently passing people on the hills because I was prepared for them and they weren’t. My last race at Zumbro 17 miler, by the end, I was actually happy when there were hills because I knew that was the part I would be catching, passing, and putting distance between the other racers. - Christian
I’ve been a runner for nearly 46 years but never gave one moment of thought to hill hiking training until I began working with Coach Jamie. I figured hiking is just walking and we walk all day long so why train for it, right? Wrong! While trying to qualify for Western States 100, I would race many mountainous 100 mile qualifiers and would always struggle on prolonged climbs. I began working with Coach Jamie a couple years ago to address some leg injury issues, which led to coaching for ultras. Hill hiking training became a staple when we were preparing for some of my longer races. I have access to great hill training terrain in summer, but having an incline trainer with up to 40% grade allowed Jamie to prescribe very specific hiking workouts in winter. I definitely noticed that my hill climbing ability improved dramatically with this type of training for races such as Cocodona 250 and Superior 100. During the latter miles of Superior 100 I was hiking and climbing so well that when I was passing some fellow 100 milers one of them yelled “50 miler coming through” thinking I was racing the 50 miler instead.
Recommendations for your training
First, put aside any ego concerns you have about “hiking” vs running. Hiking more will make you a BETTER ultra-racer! So, work through any insecurities or negative perceptions you have about hiking vs running. Again, this will make you a BETTER ultra-runner! It will not make you a “slow runner” or not a “real runner.”
Next, I recommend thinking about what percent of your ultra you TRULY will be running. Again, put your ego aside and be real with yourself here! People tend to think they are going to do more running during a race than they actually end up doing. Look back at past ultras and check your cadence. This is a great way to see how much time you spent hiking vs running.
After that, create a training plan. You want to make your training RACE-SPECIFIC. If you do a ton of hiking during your ultras, then it is a great idea to do quite a bit of hiking in your training! I recommend doing at least 1x a week of hill hiking training for ALL ultra-athletes. Doing 2x+ a week of hill hiking is ideal for those of you doing a race with a lot of vertical gain or if you tend to do a lot of hiking during any ultra-race no matter what the elevation gain looks like.
How to do the training session: Hike up the hill with purpose. NO DILLY DALLYING HERE! You want to focus on a 6-7/10 effort. At this effort, it feels like you are pushing the pace, but it also feels manageable. If you feel like you are on the verge of running, then you are trying to push the pace too hard. The goal is to become an efficient hiker vs an efficient trotter. Using a longer hill (like a ski hill) is ideal for these sessions. You want a hill that is steep enough so you are pushing with more power than flat hiking, but it shouldn’t be so steep that you are crawling on your hands and feet and losing your amazing hiking form.
When to do the sessions: This depends on the race you are doing and when you have time to get to a hill. Doing a shorter session during the week is a nice way to break up the weekday running sessions, but I also like to have people do longer hill hiking sessions the day after a long run to mimic hiking hard on tired legs during an ultra.