by Martin J. Trout

The other day I was talking to Maria Bellini, Italy on Trail’s founderwhen I asked her how the Tartufo Trail race, in Emilia-Romagna, had been for her. I knew she had run it as I was one of the designated sweepers and had caught up to her on one of the climbs at about 32 kilometers of the 52 kilometers race, where she was having a tough moment.

Actually she finished the race pretty well in just over 9 hours and even overtook a number of people in the last 20 kilometres. But, she complained, “I really suffered on the up hills. Running down is easy but I just can’t seem to keep up a good rhythm when climbing. I do quite a lot of training to run up hills but it doesn’t seem to help.”

“Well” I said, “and how many climbs do you actually run during a race?”
None” came back the answer, which I was fully expecting.

You know things are not looking good when the footsteps behind you are the sweepers! The Tartufo Trail 2017 - Maria Bellini to the left, before the uphills and Martin Trout to the right, sweeper.
You know things are not looking good when the footsteps behind you are the sweepers! Tartufo Trail 2017 – Maria Bellini, (before the uphills) and Martin Trout, sweeper. IMGS by Italo Spina for Modenacorre

And there we have it, the problem of specificity. If you train to run up hills but then walk them, you’re probably not going to do a great job.

Running and walking though clearly very closely related are not the same muscular or neurological action. Different muscular use, different angles and different models of energy use and efficiency.

Italy – A Land of Mountains

Italian trail races have a lot of vertical. On average a 20km race will have about 1000m of climbing which means a 50km race will have 2500m of climbing and a 100km at least 5000m. However it is very easy to find races with a lot more up hill between you and the finish line, for example the tough but beautiful Monte Rosa Walser Trail with it’s 4000m of vertical in only 50km.

Can Everyone Run Up The Hills?

Only the very fittest athletes are going to run the whole way, and even these sometimes have to resort to walking the tougher sections. So it would make sense to train this very specific skill before finding ourselves half way up a hill and wondering how we are ever going to get to the top.

So How Can We Prepare For This?

We all know how to walk; we learnt to do it as toddlers and young kids, though as soon as we learnt to run, away we went, free at last and not a care in the world. But walking uphill is actually quite a specific task and is not necessarily intuitive.

For instance, which is the most effective method of walking?

    • Could it be with hands and arms clasped behind our back, chest thrust outwards and rhythmic long steps like Marco Olmo.

Marco Olmo – see his famous walking uphill technique at min 1.30

    • Or maybe bent forward pushing down, just above our knees with our hand, in order to produce more force and traction through our legs, as is often seen in sky races.

Limone Skyrunning Extreme – known for its brutal climbs, check out the hands above knee technique at mins: 2.02

  • Or maybe we should be using a set of poles, if the race allows them, to help us gain traction as well as balance, involving the whole upper body as well as our legs.

Even 2017 UTMB winner Francois D’Haene used poles together with walking in the race, forward to minute 2.18

There is actually only one way to find out and that is experimenting with the various styles to see which works best for you. But probably this experimentation is best done in training than in the actual race.

Take To The Hills

If you have a good sized hill in your area, a great training session is doing classic hill repeats, but walking up as fast as possible instead of running. Then, take the opportunity of practicing your fast downhill running before the next uphill walk interval. If you will be using a running pack during the race, you should be carrying out this session with the fully loaded pack – again the principle of specificity. The extra weight on the shoulders and back will actually change the angle and force of muscular involvement so better to get used to it before the race starts.

Carrying out a similar session once a week in the months leading up to the race will guarantee you a better race day performance, and who knows, you may find yourself overtaking a lot of other runners both on the climbs and on the descents.

The Magic Word

And, as you speed past them, you can whisper in their ear Specificity.


Martin John Trout
Martin Trout is an all round Adventurer, an accomplished ultra runner, mountaineer, ski mountaineering instructor and trail running coach at Endurance Training in Progress. He’s been living in Italy since the 1990’s.