How to run uphill and downhill (and my most recent Cross Country race!)
Today I want to share my advice on how to run uphill and run downhill, based on my most recent cross country race experience!
After a tough few weeks of moving home and being ill, I’m right back into marathon training mode and am trying hard to be sensible with my training.
For me, this means trying to ensure I don’t run solely on roads as this isn’t good for my joints. Instead, I’m enjoying using my headtorch to explore the local area by night and my google maps app on my phone too to ensure I know how to find my way again once I’ve got myself lost! Being sensible also means upping my weekly mileage slowly (no more than 10% more than the previous week).
I hadn’t planned to run on Saturday! Despite entering a race a long while back, there was so much to do at home I just didn’t think I could go ahead with it. Turns out, I have an awesome supporter who understands me and my need to run, to compete and to push myself. So I went. I went without really knowing the route, who else was going, where I’d find anyone, what the weather forecast was, where I’d park or being prepared mentally for what was to come. It was invigorating! Normally (and sensibly I might add!), I am well-versed in the route, timings, kit checks, who else will be there, weather conditions, etc, etc.
When I arrived, it was clear that the Midlands Cross Country Championships is a pretty big event! The programme, I discovered later, showed that there was an entire day of running going on, from U13 age group races all the way up to Senior races. The day had started at 11:00am and now, we were just a few minutes from the start of the final race; the Senior Men’s race.
I hurriedly pinned on a running club mate’s race number to his back, panicking that after all this effort to get here, I was going to miss the start. Then we sauntered over to the start line…with, it seemed, the whole of the Midlands! The scene was like something from a David Attenborough documentary, showing the pilgrimage of an entire species to a specific watering hole. It made the hairs of my neck stand on end and soon the pre-race chemicals of excitement and expectation were flowing through my body.
Listening and responding to your body
After the usual pre-race banter with the officials, we set off without a hitch and despite every fibre of my being trying not to go too fast, I went too fast. Or so I thought. The thing with cross country racing is that it is near-on impossible to stick to a pace. Therefore, trying to measure how you are doing is not an exact science. It completely relies on you being in tune with your body and how you run best. For me, I tend to run downhill pretty well. I find uphills hard and if I push it uphill, I’m likely to need to pause whilst my body expresses it’s hate before I can go on. The flats I’m fine with too and because I tend to be quite light on my feet, boggy ground isn’t too much of an issue…at least, it hasn’t been until now.
Looking back at my kilometre splits (see later), it is clear that the 3rd km of each lap, which included a hill and a bog in which my feet sank about a foot down with each step…for about 200 metres, was the one in which I struggled most in terms of pace.
After two laps, I was seriously worried that I was going to finish the race by crawling across the line, such was my mind’s ability to question my stubbornness and ability to pace myself. I tried to put into practice my own tips about running up hills. It left me cursing myself quietly under my breath, just thinking how easily those words came out of my mouth. People who listen to me say those words like it is the easiest thing to do must really get annoyed with me. I know I was getting annoyed replaying my own words of advice, whilst trying to avoid my lungs bursting…
- Lean into the hill (from the ankle, not the hips), so gravity helps you almost ‘fall up’
- Take shorter strides to keep your momentum going
- Pump your arms
I had decided I was going to try and pace myself such that I didn’t have to rely on tip 4:
- Walk up steep hills, using your hands on your thighs to help push you uphill. Sometimes, it is quicker than running.
And then the downhill tips:
- Lean forwards, attacking the hill. Most people lean back and put more pressure and force on their knees.
- Take shorter strides to slow yourself down if you feel yourself running out of control.
I used these tips, but replaying myself saying them to others wasn’t helpful when I was in pain running hard for myself and for my team. Visualising the assertive, confident and knowledgeable coach (or, arse as I was thinking about myself at this point) saying these words, I shuddered at my own image.
As I got more cross with my own advice, wanting to just run and not worry about technique because it was just too much to think about, a familiar voice shouted out to me and shook me out of my mental battles. ‘Go on Mr Caldwell!’ I heard, from an excited young voice. It was a pupil, and after the initial joy at being encouraged, my mind again turned it into a negative. It said: ‘Ha! Now you have even more accountability! That child knows what you taught about hill running and will now be examining your every stride, your entire technique, scouring it for deficiencies with which to berate you next week!’ I could have given up. At that point, I wanted to use the recognition as an excuse to stop and have a chat. Catch my breath, maybe see if they had a drink of water and whether they wanted to swap places with me. But no. My body kicked on, fighting my mind with everything it had to carry on, down the hill, just to turn around and run back up it again…and again.
As we performed the switch back up the hill, I glanced across to see a number of my club team-mates a few hundred metres behind. I decided that I was going to do all I could to maintain my position, both in terms of my club placing, but also with regard to the wider race. This assertion galvanised my mind and gave me something to focus on mentally, another distraction from the physical exertion of racing.
As I entered the final lap, I knew I was going to finish the race and I really felt like I’d tried hard to ensure I didn’t run out of steam. As the adrenalin kicked in, knowing I was just 3km (or about 14 minutes from the finish), I had a shock. I heard the announcer say that the leader of the men’s race was just coming in to the final straight. Already?!!! I looked at my watch and it hadn’t reached 40 minutes yet. I did the Maths. The winner is about to finish in approx.. 40 minutes…for a 12km (11.59km to be exact) cross country race in which they (like me!) have had to toil through about 800 metres worth of energy sapping bog…is this for real?
Above images courtesy of Bryan Dale of racephotos.org.uk.
Only when the results were published was this fact confirmed. I was, and am, in awe. The frontrunners must surely have glided over those bog sections. The time was incredible and it was interesting to note my mixed feelings of both feeling inspired and of sheer incredulity that the time was even possible. Whilst I’d love to run this event again next year, part of me wants to watch the frontrunners do their thing – it is spellbinding watching excellent runners in full flow. I cast my mind back to the summer when I was lucky enough to watch the World Championships at the Olympic Stadium in London. The athletes were electrifying round the track and so inspiring. You could tell how much it meant to them all and it was incredible to see them live.
As I completed the boggy section for the final time, it was evident to me that the course wasn’t quite going to be 12km as I was on the final straight now! I was just behind a couple of other runners, who went all out on this last straight. I tried to stay with them, but despite a surge, I couldn’t overtake them. I crossed the line exhausted, but pleased with how I’d managed my effort levels during the race.
My official finishing time was 51:20, finishing in 135th place out of 473. The winner was Alexander Brecker of City of Stoke AC in a jaw-dropping time of 40:09.
My splits and race information can be found by checking out my Strava link here.
One of my clubmates summed it up really well afterwards when he commented that he felt so honoured to know that he’d just run the same course as so many brilliant, elite athletes; whilst he respected their times, he was also so full of enthusiasm for the slower runners amongst us that take part and give these events such a fantastic atmosphere. The pre-race banter, the inevitable excuses / funny anecdotes from poignant mid-race moments and the community feeling afterwards of achievement, camaraderie and feeling that ‘runner’s high’ – a mixture of relief, ecstasy and fulfilment/pride at having ‘beaten’ the course.
What do you love about running, and/or racing? Do you have a favourite memory from a race?
Can you give any further tips about running up or down hills? If so, please comment below!