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Trailhead: power-hiking is an important tool in the trailrunner’s arsenal

How and why to train your fast walking skills for mountain running and racing

It was my first mountain race–the Jungfrau Marathon and that year’s World Long Distance Mountain running championship in Interlake, Switzerland–an uphill marathon. At one point my speed slowed, and I could feel the energy draining out of me with every stride. I chastised myself as I stared up at the wall of dirt and rocks in front of me: “You’re a runner. This is a running race. Dig deeper. Don’t be such a wuss.” I continued to pump furiously in a running-type motion as a Spanish competitor hiked past me at a brisk walking pace. As the relentless gradient kept getting steeper, I was reduced to a defeated walk until the gradient eased off a bit and I could start my mountain shuffle again. 

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Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

In evaluating that race, I realized that an efficient power-hike is an incredibly useful tool in a trail runner’s arsenal, especially for runners who will be racing longer races or mountain runs. So I vowed to become a better mountain hiker, as well as runner.

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

Like every skill, the ability to power-hike is learned–one that you can only develop and improve with deliberate practice. In training we tend to put a lot of emphasis on higher-end speed training and threshold work, which is important, because it helps overall running efficiency and fitness. But working and training your lower-end speed also works to bump up your average speed, thus improving your race time.

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

I’ve noticed a lot of people, when they start walking or hiking in races, don’t hike with purpose. They essentially lollygag. Like me in the Jungfrau, their walking reflects a defeated attitude. Instead, if you make power-hiking a part of your race plan, you can see it as part of the race execution. Even the simple act of referring to it as “power-hiking” changes the mind-frame around it. It’s a hike with the purpose and intensity befitting a race.

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell
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Going into a race, I look at the course profile to get a sense of where I might need to hike. I have also found that even on hills that I could run, there are times when it’s more logical to hike, because running at that gradient uses up a lot of my metabolic energy, leaving me exhausted and the pace on the rest of my run slower than I would like. Whereas if I hike, I may be a minute or so slower, but the pace on the rest of my run increases, so it’s actually an advantage.

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

Living in the Canadian Rockies, I am fortunate to have a few mountains to choose from, right at my front door. I incorporate power-hiking into almost all my runs, partly out of necessity due to steepness and altitude. The more I practise the hiking, the more efficient it has become, and I now find my hiking to be almost as fast, or in some cases faster, than my running stride on the steeper sections. It also uses much less energy.

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

So how do you practise hiking? First, I think about when it makes sense to start hiking. I know from years of experience at what degree of steepness or level of technicality it’s more efficient for me to begin hiking. I also think about my posture. I try to not round my shoulders too much, instead trying to maintain a good posture to keep my chest and airway open. I try to keep my chest more or less parallell to the gradient of the hill, and I also shorten my stride to keep my cadence up.

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

I judge my effort and intensity the same way I do when running–I look at the pace on my GPS watch, and I try to keep it as fast as possible. I find that the second I back off on my focus, my pace can decrease significantly, and over the course of a race, this can be significant.

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

As I’ve started incorporating ski-mountaineer racing and climbing into my mountain sports, I’ve found myself essentially doing weighted hikes, carrying a pack with extra gear uphill, and my power-hiking has improved. Ian Sharman, one of the most consistently successful 100-mile runners over the past few years, is famous for incorporating weighted-vest hiking into his ultra training. Kilian Jornet, without a doubt the best endurance mountain athlete alive at the moment, also spends a lot of his winter essentially hiking uphill fast, carrying skis and a pack.

RELATED: WATCH: Kilian Jornet: Path to Everest

Photo: courtesy of Adam Campbell

If you live in a flatter area, you can find a treadmill and put it up to its highest incline, or find a stepmill or a series of steps and practise hiking up them.

So rather than seeing hiking as a defeat, these days I choose to see power-hiking as a weapon in my arsenal of mountain-running skills.