The best way to run up and down hills and how does pumping yours arms make you run faster
Do I run “wrong”?
In some ways, running has more in common with basic functions like eating and breathing than with more technical sports like golf or swimming. As kids, we learn to run with no special instruction, just as our ancestors have for millennia. Still, it’s clear that some people run more smoothly than others. As a result, an industry has emerged promising to teach people “correct” running techniques like the Pose Method or Chi Running.
Two questions arise. First, is it possible to change the way you’ve run all your life after a few weeks of workshops? And second, does it do any good?
Though there’s a shortage of long-term research in this area, the answer to the first question appears to be yes. A 2004 study by researchers in South Africa put 20 runners through an intensive one-week program to learn the Pose technique, which aims to place the body in an S-shaped pose as each foot hits the ground. Sure enough, running with the new technique produced shorter stride lengths, less vertical oscillation, and less power absorbed by the knee. Whether these changes are maintained—and eventually start to feel “natural”—has yet to be tested.
The second question is more controversial. You can imagine that the reduced load on the knee might translate into fewer injuries, though that wasn’t demonstrated. The problem is that these forces don’t simply disappear—they’re transferred elsewhere, in this case to the ankle. In an interesting postscript, one of the scientists involved in that study, Ross Tucker, revealed in 2008 on his blog, The Science of Sport, that 14 of the 20 runners in the study suffered from calf or Achilles tendon problems in the two weeks after the study ended.
In 2005, another study of the Pose technique, this time at Colorado State University, confirmed once again that runners could learn to use a shorter stride length with less vertical oscillation. This time, eight volunteers were given 12 weeks of instruction, and their running economy—a measure of how much oxygen is consumed at a given speed—was measured before and after. The result was a statistically significant worsening of running economy by about 8 percent. There was one interesting anomaly in the Colorado State study: the only subject who improved his running economy happened also to be the least experienced runner in the group, and he started the study with the longest stride. One possible conclusion is that the other, more experienced runners in the study had already developed optimal stride patterns based on trial and error, which is why they got worse when they tried to learn a new technique. The more general conclusion is that the Pose method is good for some people and bad for others.
Some researchers are looking at simpler interventions, like taking shorter, quicker steps. Bryan Heiderscheit, the head of the University of Wisconsin’s running injuries clinic, noticed that the less-experienced runners among his patients were overwhelmingly prone to “overstriding”—reaching too far forward with each step so that the heel comes crashing down well in front of the body. “As they make the transition from fast walking to slow running, they tend to keep the long stride and low step rate,” he observes. In a 2010 study, he and his colleagues found that increasing stride rate by 5 to 10 percent (initially using a metronome until the new cadence felt natural) decreased the impact forces felt in the knee and hip. They’re now undertaking a multi-year clinical trial to find out whether this simple change will result in fewer injuries.
For now, there simply isn’t enough experimental data to draw firm conclusions about what happens when you try to learn to run “better.” It’s clear that, with sufficient instruction and practice, you can alter the way you run. But it may be that the best way to learn to run is simply to run, relying on your body’s innate search for efficiency to find the right technique for your body.
What’s the best way to run up and down hills?
Running uphill is tough on the lungs, and running back down is tough on the legs. Either way, hills can derail an otherwise pleasant run if you’re not prepared for them. Fortunately, a team of Australian researchers armed with the latest technology has come up with some valuable guidance. In a 2010 study, they sent a group of runners out on a hilly six-mile course while wired with a portable gas analyzer to measure oxygen consumption, a GPS receiver to measure speed and acceleration, a heart rate monitor, and an “activity monitor” to measure stride rate and stride length. The results suggest that most runners make two key mistakes: they try to run too fast on the uphills, and they don’t run fast enough on the downhills.
When you’re running on flat terrain, your speed is generally limited by the ability of your heart and lungs to transport oxygen to the muscles in your legs. If you try to maintain the same speed while hauling your body up a hill, you’ll quickly notice that you’re breathing harder because you’re consuming more oxygen. The problem with this approach is that, once you get to the top of the hill, you’ll need time to recover from this extra effort. In the study, runners took an extra 78 seconds on average to regain their initial speed after cresting a hill—a delay that wipes out the benefit of pushing hard up the hill, lead researcher Andrew Townshend of the Queensland University of Technology says. “Based on our results, we suggested that a small decrease in speed on the uphill may be more than compensated for by a quicker return to faster running speeds on the subsequent level section,” he says.
Surprisingly, the opposite was true on downhill sections. Because of the jarring impacts involved in running downhill, most of us simply can’t run fast enough downhill to be limited by oxygen. The practical tip: when you get to the bottom of a hill, focus on maintaining your momentum (and higher speed) until your breathing forces you to slow down again. The downhill results were much less consistent among subjects than the uphill and level sections of the experiment. Some people were able to run far closer to their aerobic limits than others, gaining valuable time without getting significantly more tired. This suggests that downhill running is a skill you can acquire through practice.
Of course, there’s a reason we tend to back off when running down hills: it’s hard on the legs and raises injury risk. For that reason, it’s best to limit downhill training to short sprints on a fairly gentle grade—a technique that’s also used by sprinters and football players to improve their sprint speed. A 2008 study from Marquette University found that a 10 percent grade (5.7 degrees) is the ideal gradient to maximize your speed in 40-yard sprints.
While these simple tips—slow down on the ups, speed up on the downs—should help you distribute your effort more evenly during runs, you’ll need to try them out to find the right balance for yourself. “The best I can suggest is that runners should practice varying their degree of effort on hills that they frequently use in training, to determine how much they should slow down to reap an overall time benefit,” Townshend says. “An experiment of n=1 for all to try!”
Does pumping my arms make me run faster?
To see first-hand how intertwined your arm and leg motions are, try running with your arms pinned to your sides. It’s hard! So if moving your arms less makes you slow down, does moving them more help you speed up?
That’s the idea when coaches tell their athletes to pump their arms while they’re sprinting or approaching the end of a long race. As it turns out, though, the link between arms and legs isn’t quite that simple—in fact, it’s still a topic of hot debate among researchers.
To pump your arms, you need to activate your arm and shoulder muscles. But a 2009 paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology challenged the idea that muscles play any role in normal arm swing during walking or running. They performed a series of experiments suggesting that arm swing is passive rather than active, occurring naturally to counterbalance the rotation of your lower body.
In other words, if you had rubber arms with no muscles in them, the twisting motion of your lower body would cause the arms to swing exactly the way they do in real life (other than minor details like keeping your elbow bent while running).
Support for this notion is found in a 1998 paper from Yugoslavia, in which researchers carefully measured the effects of attaching small weights to the arms and legs of sprinters. As you’d expect, even small loads of about a pound on the legs dramatically slowed sprint speed—but loads of up to 1.5 pounds on the arms produced no effect whatsoever. If arm motion was really helping to drive leg speed, you’d expect the arm weights to have an effect.
The logical conclusion is that you should focus on keeping your arms relaxed so they can swing freely, rather than trying to force them to pump faster. To achieve this, coaches often recommend keeping your shoulders low and your hands unclenched.
But not everyone agrees that the arms are strictly ballast. Researchers at the University of Michigan studied patients rehabilitating from spinal cord injuries and reported an interesting observation in 2006: rhythmic arm movement seemed to help the patients as they tried to regain movement in their legs.
They saw this as evidence that arm and leg movement originate in the same part of the brain, suggesting that “arm swing may also facilitate lower limb muscle activation via neural coupling.” Other researchers had similarly argued that, as a legacy from our long-distant past as quadrupeds, the motion of all four of our limbs is still coordinated.
To test this idea, the Michigan researchers strapped healthy volunteers into a “recumbent stepper”—basically an exercise machine that requires you to move either your arms, your legs, or both. Sure enough, they found that when subjects moved their arms back and forth, their brains were able to recruit more muscle fibers to contract in their legs than when they didn’t pump their arms.
This research is still too preliminary to draw any firm conclusions. It doesn’t contradict the finding that our arms swing primarily to balance the motion of our legs. But it does suggest that, when you’re fatiguing at the end of a hard run and your legs are starting to fail, keeping a nice, steady rhythm with your arms just might help you keep going.