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

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.

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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.

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