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Ideas to Manage Steep Climbs During a Trail Run

Typically, when trail runners talk about climbing, they’re talking about mountains and elevation… but not always. To create a reference point, I chose to approach this from a mountain at higher elevation perspective. These points are all told with that in mind, but can be applied as well at lower elevation for the most part.

Inbound: Looking back from where you had come from. (Photo: David Hanenburg)

Hope Pass climb/descent at Leadville 100. (Photo: David Hanenburg)

Posture: This might be the most ignored and the most important concept to master. When you see pictures of large groups of runners climbing a steep hill, they are all in various shapes of bent from strait up to the ungainly ‘S’ (butt out & head down). This is the typical incorrect position: head down while grunting up the hill. This inefficient S-body form reduces air flow to the lungs as well as not allowing the lungs to open to full volume. If you’re looking at your feet, you’re also putting a lot of strain on the lower back. To optimize air flow into your lungs & reduce back pain, keep an erect posture, head up, eyes focused ahead, and lean slightly forward into the hill.

Breathe: The idea is to keep your breathing under control.
If you have ever been at altitudes where you had to stop just to catch your breath, you might appreciate the ability to control your breathing so that you never had to stop. People who live at altitude are not just acclimated, they’re breathing has adapted such that they seldom need to think about it. For us flat-landers, our typical breathing pattern doesn’t work as well at elevations where the air is noticeably thin. The technique is pretty simple to explain but takes some practice to perfect. Inhale deep (1 to 3 seconds) followed by a long forced exhale. The idea is to rid the body of as much carbon dioxide as possible and replace it with fresh clean air. Bad air out – good air in. In time, this technique will click into rhythm with your stride. Under 8000 feet, it doesn’t seem to do me much good, but over that and I attempt to dial it in again.

Stride & Cadence: A shorter stride and higher cadence is essential.
If you over-stride while climbing, the energy cost will be high and burnout likely, leaving you overworked and exhausted. Pretend you’re on a bike: then drop into Granny Gear. The increased turnover (cadence) and short stride can be sustained much longer than a long inefficient stride. It will also be easier to maintain a steady rhythm. The goal is to negotiate a climb as efficiently as possible with little change in your running rhythm.

Never stop on an uphill: You lose momentum every time you stop or switch back and forth between walk & run. The energy cost being greater when going from rest to movement than if you had simply kept moving. Weather you are running or walking, dial in a constant steady rhythm that is easy to maintain from bottom to top and hold it. You should also consider there are instances when walking is just as fast as running & much less exhausting. I like to think that you should go as slow as you need to so that you never have to stop on a climb.


Short/Steep Bandera climbs. (Photo: David Hanenburg)

Route Selection: The best line is not always the most direct.
The idea is all about energy management: to get to the top of the hill with the least amount of energy cost in the fastest possible time. Consider an uphill route and time yourself on different tracks while simultaneously paying attention to your energy exhaustion on each. A direct route that takes more energy over a few ledges nets a certain time, but leaves you toasted. Another more circuitous route is obviously longer and takes a bit longer but deposits you on top ready to go again. Was the small difference in time worth the energy cost. Maybe it’s a large difference in time, but again – is it worth the cost. Do you have another 45 miles to go and will you continue to make the same choice? So, route selection is all about energy management. How much are you willing to spend? How much do you have?

Terrain: Does it make any difference?
For descents, there is a world of differences, but for climbing… I don’t think the terrain makes any difference to any of the above ideas. There are some special cases,like climbing on snow, ice, or scree… but even these are true for all of the above.

Mental: There is always a mental side.
These are the same sort of head games we play in all of trail running, but with an uphill twist. a) Break the hill into sections & focus on the next landmark. This is true for any distance climb. b) You have to love it or you will hate it – and if you hate it, it will be very hard – so love it and make it easy. c) When you approach a climb, any climb, plan to keep spinning til you top out – no excuses. d) Route selection is all about energy conservation, so follow the circuitous fire-ant’s route – the easiest one.


  1. Erect posture, head up, eyes focused ahead, and lean slightly forward into the hill.
  2. Manage your breathing.
  3. Short stride & high cadence.
  4. Never stop on an uphill.
  5. The best route requires the least energy.

– Joe Prusaitis

About the author

Joe Prusaitis Joe Prusaitis ran his first trail race in 1996, a 50 miler. Since then, he has ran at least 100 ultras, nearly 50 marathons, and a variety of other odd and various distances. Joe also sits on the USAT&F South Texas board, representing Mountain/Trail/Ultra. For more information on Joe, check out the About page where you can see his coaching and race directing projects.

7 Responses to “Ideas to Manage Steep Climbs During a Trail Run”

  1. on 10 Sep 2013 at 9:58 am Steven

    I like it! On the mental side, I use this technique in my training: Do not acknowledge a hill’s existence. Most of the hills around Austin are NOTHING. Do not give them credit as even being there. Keep the same pace and hammer them, you can recover later. Then, on race day, instead of dreading the upcoming hill, you just motor up it and get on with business without getting psyched out or distracted.

  2. on 16 Sep 2013 at 8:00 am olga

    I’d add learn to power-hike when the hill is steep and/or long. I can out-walk many peeps who try to run the hills, and have fresher legs for it later.

  3. on 16 Sep 2013 at 9:07 am Chris R.

    Great point about posture. By far my biggest challenge.

  4. on 23 Sep 2013 at 1:51 pm Glenn

    Great article from someone who knows a thing or two about mountain running. It got me to post my thoughts on going down the other side of the hill to my blog.

  5. on 27 Sep 2013 at 6:22 am Daily News, Fri, Sep 27

    […] stuff: How to manage steep climbs during a trail […]

  6. on 08 Oct 2013 at 8:56 am David Hanenburg

    Hey Glenn – Thanks for sharing your downhill running tips – good stuff! Like the treadmill hack as well. 🙂

    Here is a direct link for those interested:

  7. on 08 Oct 2013 at 9:05 am David Hanenburg

    Steven – I dig the use of hill mind training.

    Olga – I have seen you put this to use more than a few times.