Running Self Endurance

How To Use A Treadmill To Improve Power Hiking

Here’s how to get better at power hiking for trail running.

Two examples and some disclaimers to get to a simple answer? Sounds about right. Here’s a more complicated version of that simple answer: 

Hiking form creates output limitations relative to running, so as long as an athlete is doing some higher-output running training, they can often rapidly improve at hiking by developing their biomechanical proficiency to align the mechanical demands with the metabolic demands.

This all relies on the unique biomechanical strain of hiking. 

Proper hiking form is not necessarily intuitive, with a tipped-forward posture, engaged glutes, and active arms. While sustainable running feels relaxed, sustainable hiking can have a sense of urgency the whole time. That biomechanical strain can lead to athletes slowing down or cramping when they don’t hike enough in training, even when the actual output isn’t that high relative to their capabilities. 

It can also lead to elevated heart rate, particularly at first. One athlete averaged 160 heart rate at 15% grade and 3.8 miles per hour on that first treadmill session, and it made her sore in her low back, glutes, and shins the next day. After a couple weeks, her heart rate was 145 at 15% grade and 4 miles per hour, and with no soreness at all. 

The treadmill is our favorite place to practice because it can be faster and more efficient, with no rocks to dodge or anything to think about other than doing some hiking work (and listening to a sweet playlist). And most importantly, there are no downhills, which could increase impact forces and injury risk. 

Controversial statement alert: just 20 to 30 minutes of focused treadmill hiking a week can give almost any runner the tools to become a power hiking BOSS, ready to translate that ability to the trails for specific training.

1. Glutes (Forward Lean)

Athletes to imagine that they are mimicking the grade they are approaching. On a 15% grade, think a more pronounced forward lean. On a 4% grade, it will be almost imperceptible. Try to generate power from the glutes, like they are two badass windmills that will mesmerize birds so that they fly into them at full speed. 

That last sentence will be second fortune cookie.

2. Knees (Knee Drive)

Many athletes tend to walk with straight legs. But this isn’t walking, it’s power hiking. In power hiking, you should still bend your knee slightly as your leg pulls through, limiting the angle formed by your tibia and femur to prevent excess energy use. Particularly on very steep hills, you want to feel like you are pawing forward, almost like you are creating imaginary stairs that help you engage those glutes. 

3. Arms (Active Swing)

In running, the arm swing is passive, focusing on maintaining posture and limiting energy use. In hiking, the arms can be another chance to generate power. Athletes to alternate between hands on thighs (using your arms almost as poles that push into the ground with your foot) and a focused swing.

Use that form outside too, viewing every time you hike on a trail run as an opportunity to deploy your secret weapon. Scratch that, your secret weapons.

Combine that form with 3 treadmill training principles:

1. General timing

Consider treadmill hiking in the 6-8 weeks before events that will involve substantial hiking time, which should be plenty of sessions to maximize the adaptations. You can also use the treadmill to improve hiking generally if it’s a weakness, or as supplementary cross training.

2. Specific timing 

We don’t want hiking to replace much running training. Those running economy adaptations take years, and it’s key not to let intermediate goals get in the way of long-term growth. Athletes to practice treadmill hiking at the end of runs, as doubles, or as cross-training, aiming for two or three stimuli a week totaling 30 to 60 minutes in key training before steep events for athletes that don’t have to hike much in training.

3. Structuring a session

15% grade is a sweet spot where you can focus on maximizing speed, with the added reality that most treadmills don’t go higher. But even if you have a treadmill that goes to 40%, raw output is still going to be limited by the form, so we don’t like athletes to spend excess training stress on practicing extremely steep grades outside of the 4-6 weeks before bonkers mountain races (think the Hardrock 100). 

Start at 2-3 miles per hour, remembering that every treadmill is calibrated differently so the exact numbers aren’t that important. Later, if an athlete finds that 15% and 4.2-4.5 miles per hour becomes easy, we’ll have them increase the grade if their machine goes higher. They can also add a weight vest to increase the difficulty once their speed stagnates.

As an addition to a run, 10 minutes works wonderfully. Start at a speed that is manageable, and alternate 1 minute faster with 1 minute easier until those faster speeds become the norm. 

As a double, 20 to 30 minutes gets a great adaptation stimulus. Start with a manageable speed, then turn it up, alternating every few minutes. Ideally mix in some steep running practice too, working on the hike-to-run and run-to-hike transitions. Very advanced athletes can do a treadhill running double, tacking on 10-15 minutes of hike/running at the end.

For cross-training, an athlete can go up to an hour with the same protocol. Any more than that risks excess stress without much physiological rationale. 

If possible, combine that general skills-building practice with specific training on steep trails that will require slightly different biomechanical patterns, particularly during long runs. As your body gets used to the new demands, you’ll likely see a wildly cool change, even if you never considered yourself a great hiker.

Comfort will go up, speed will skyrocket, and heart rate will go down.

Treadmill hiking can turn a weakness into a superpower.

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