Hills and Stairs – Technique and Training Tips

Today we welcome back some more expertise from Mark Green over at the Body Mechanic. Mark’s first article for us, a beer-drinking analogy to overuse injuries was a big success, so we thought we’d ask for some more thoughts from him, this week focused on hills and stairs technique and training. We’ve written a few times on training for hills and stairs, but I’m a big fan of diverse opinions and immersing yourself in as much information as possible to gather different points of view, so here’s Mark’s take on what is a popular topic with runners.

In some races, like Ultra Trail Australia for example, the combination of hills and stairs will take a toll on your cardio-vascular system, your body and your mind. Incorporating both hill training and stair training is essential to both your enjoyment and your success on race day. Uphill training speaks for itself. If you haven’t trained on some decent hills and stairs, then your cardiovascular system and overall energy levels are going to suffer at some point during the race.

The better prepared your climbing legs are, the easier you will find it on race day. Downhill and downstairs training is what most people neglect, or at least underestimate the importance of in their training. UTA has 4500m of climbing, but also 4500m of descending. Running downhill and downstairs is especially hard on your quadriceps muscles (front of your thighs) and can quickly turn into sore knees if you haven’t prepared properly. When we run downhills our quad muscles act as brakes. They help to slow our descent so we don’t continue to accelerate. If you have trained in the hills and included a lot of downhill running, it is not uncommon to suffer from DOMs (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) in your quads.

A similar sensation to what your upper body feels like if you return to the gym after a long break. DOMS is caused by eccentric stress, where the muscles are working to resist lengthening. DOMS not only produces delayed soreness, but almost immediate weakness in the muscle. The weakness peaks after 30 minutes (not ideal in a race!) and the pain usually occurs 24 – 72 hours after exercise. By starting your training regime with relatively short downhill runs, and gradually increasing both the volume and the intensity, your quads will adapt to the stress you are placing on them and they will become stronger.


This “adaptation” is exactly what you need in order to develop the strength you will require on race day. The extra strength created by a “DOMS” inducing downhill training session will last between four to six weeks. In order to maximise the chance of it being effective on race day, you should try and plan an appropriate training session between three to six weeks out from the event. Two weeks out is a little risky because you might still carry some fatigue into the race depending on how hard the session was.


The technique you use for both climbing and descending can have a huge impact on how well your legs survive through to the finish line.

Running Uphill

  • Keep your posture upright and avoid leaning into the hill. This will allow you to use your glutes more and your quads less (you need your quads for the downhills)
  • Try to maintain a high cadence and take short steps (your cadence will probably drop depending on how steep the hill is and your relative level of fitness, but keep it as high as you comfortably can) Think of it like using the granny gear on a mountain bike. Spinning your legs around quickly is easier on the muscles.
  • You will almost always land on the front of your foot when you are climbing. If it isn’t too steep then every now and then you can deliberately drop your heels so that they just touch the ground (for about 20-30 steps on each leg). This will give your calf muscles some brief respite from the workload.
  • If it is very steep and feels difficult to physically continue running, then you are better off walking and saving some energy. The amount of time you might lose walking up a steep section of hill is negligible compared to the amount of time you can lose later in the race if you have “blown up”


Running Stairs

Running Upstairs

  • Stay upright so you primarily use your glute muscles. This is easier on your heart and lungs and your quads than trying to tackle them two at a time.
  • Depending on the depth and height of the stairs, try to get your whole foot on the step when you can. This is also relevant when walking up stairs). If your foot lands flat (as opposed to on your toes on the front edge of the step) then your calf muscles will get a rest.
  • Walking Upstairs Walking upstairs is a lot more energy efficient than running up, so think carefully and try to plan in advance where on the course you intend to walk. This can actually make a section like Nellie’s Glen something to look forward to rather than dread! “Yay – a walking break”.


Downhill and Downstairs Technique

Descending is hard on your body, even with good technique. It can be especially punishing if your technique is poor. Your main focus should be on taking short strides and keeping your cadence high. 175 – 185 steps/minute is a good guide. You can download a metronome app on your phone and use it in training to get a feel for what 175 – 185 feels like. There is a tendency for people to try and “make up some lost ground” by running the downhill sections quickly.

It is much easier on your heart and lungs, so it doesn’t feel like particularly hard work. Most people, unless taught otherwise, will increase their speed by lengthening their stride. This causes exponentially more impact on the body (up to 6 times body weight on steep downhill sections) and increases the likelihood of inflicting a DOMS effect on your quads. The rest of the race won’t be much fun if your quads are “dead”.

Running downstairs is similar. Use every step. Don’t try and take them two at a time. If they are really steep there is often a handrail, so use the handrail to ease some of the load on your quads. Leki (hiking) poles can also be useful for this if you are worried about your quads or knees not surviving the event. If the stairs are very technical then you can use your arms as a type of counter balance. Keeping them high and wide can help to improve your stability as your body weight shifts from side to side.

Like our articles? Take a second to support Ultra168 on Patreon from as little as $1 a month!
Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

One thought on “Hills and Stairs – Technique and Training Tips

Leave a Reply