Let me start with my mantra for anyone transitioning to minimal or barefoot from shod running. Be Patient. Let your all important feet adjust and build strength. The distances and speed will come. Along with that big freakin’ smile ’cause you feel so good on the road.
I live in a hilly area. As a matter of fact, there is one particular hill about .4 of a mile from my home. It is not too long, but steep. I can put it at the beginning and/or end of a run. I have a number of routes that I take that get me anywhere from 1 mile to 20+ miles and I can end them on this hill or on an easier access. The pictures don’t show the angle very well, but it is over 10% grade at the steepest part of the incline.
On the way out, which is downhill, I use it to test new brands or models of running shoes. If I felt the foot strikes in my jaw, then the shoes didn’t have the right heel cushion for me. I look back on that criteria now and smile because I listen/feel for the heel strike now, but for totally different reasons.
Going up, on the way back, it is a test of my state of condition. If at the end of a long run I can romp up the hill and not be gasping for breath, then I am in shape. That is a nice feel at the end of 15+ miles.
I avoided the hill for a few weeks after going to minimalist running. Something about going down a steep hill made me think I needed some practice first. I had only hit this hill with heel strikes and I knew that wasn’t going to work.
I read what I could about running hills barefoot style and came up short on good advice. That forced me to pay attention to what I was doing, what felt right, what felt wrong and what felt just plain weird.
The good news is that I have figured it out – at least for me.
Before I get to downhill, let me start with the uphill. Uphill is pretty easy. If anything, a slight incline actually helps accentuate correct form since it helps with the forefoot strike. You keep the same form going up the hill, but slow your cadence. I do have one caution.
* Do not run up a hill on tip toe *
Make sure that when your foot strikes you let the heel drop. It doesn’t have to hit the surface you are running up, but let your leg extend normally. This is a general recommendation and you need to find your comfort zone. I ran up a half mile long hill when I first started and I was on my toes the whole time. My calves were pretty sore for a couple of weeks afterward. I’ve done the same hill many times since letting my heels drop normally and have had no issue.
Here is where it gets tricky. In all of my reading, and it is not exhaustive, I haven’t seen a good recommendation for how to go downhill. I’ve done a lot of downhills now and I’ve paid attention to what seems comfortable.
First, it will feel weird the first time you do it right. Weird in the sense that you are just on the edge of out of control. The reason is that you are accelerating downhill but you have to keep your center of gravity over your stride. When you go downhill with shoes, the heel strike breaks your speed. Barefoot, you want to move fast and let gravity do the work.
Second, a slight hip rotation is critical for keeping in balance. This is a matter of slight adjustments. I have found the most natural movement is keeping the feet hitting on that centerline and making sure you keep your knees up while making the runway model movement consistent. I have tried downhill with my feet spread apart and splayed out to varying degrees and that is not very comfortable.
Third, strike softly. Don’t try to break your speed, just let the cadence adjust to the slope so it can carry you. If you need to slow it down, then shorten your stride and up your cadence, but keep your forefoot strike in play. And keep the strike soft. The soft strike means a quick pace as you are running down the hills.
* Here’s a trick* To keep the soft strike while you speed downhill, bend your knees a little more. Again, we are talking a fraction of an inch in what you sense, but it makes a big difference. All I can figure is the extra bend does more shock absorption. Now you will feel even weirder, but you will sail down the hill. I’ll take the speed. You’ll get used to the weird.
Fourth, keep you upper body straight. It is easy to find yourself leaning backward or forward on a decent. There is a natural urge to break by leaning back on your heels. You’ll feel the thump in your jaws if you do this, so lean forward and straighten up until your hitting on the forefoot again. You don’t want to lean too far forward since that will shift your center of gravity ahead of your stride and then you’ll be trying not to do an end over.
Listen, it sounds a lot harder than it is. The good thing is that I’ve experimented with the options and am sharing what seems to work best. Think of it as a starting point.
Start with some short hills of low inclination. Don’t try for speed, but go as fast as your form will allow you. Start with the form I’ve outlined. If it feels right, then just keep doing it until it feels natural. If it doesn’t quite gel, then play with how far from center you place your footfalls. Alter your foot splay to see if it makes a difference in control. Don’t be drastic with any change and listen to your body. If you can feel your foot strike in your bones, then you are not in good form.
Most of all. Don’t force it. If it doesn’t feel right and you are getting frustrated. Stop. Walk on home and do that last hundred yards or so in correct form so you stop on a good note.
I do the hill now. I even do a much longer hill that goes for a mile down and up. You’ll get the rhythm going and it’ll become natural.
Next up. What are those on your feet?