The Joys of Hill Walking and How to Prepare

06/02/15

Going Up

Sarah Rowell

Walking brings many joys: fitness, fun with friends, a sense of achievement and an escape into the countryside to find some of the best views in the world.

The most stunning vistas, however, are usually found from hilltops and mountainsides. To reach them, we need to gain some height.

Climbs (and the inevitable walks back down) can make even the most accomplished walker feel nervous, so you’re not alone if the prospect puts you a little bit on edge.

Those nerves aren’t necessarily bad; they give us focus. They ensure we pay attention and take the right steps, which will in turn transform ascents and descents into safer and more pleasant experiences.

So, with our minds sufficiently sharpened by the challenge, how do we to tackle hills with confidence? The four Ps – pace, posture, poles and preparation – are key, so let’s look at each of these in turn.

Pace


Whether going uphill or down, finding a pace you can control is essential, both for your fitness and your safety.

When walking uphill, you should aim for a pace that enables you to hold a conversation, even if it consists only of short sentences, all the way to the top.

This will invariably mean that you adopt a slower speed than you would on the flat, but on long hills especially it is a much more economical and often faster option than striding up flat out in an effort to quickly reach the top. A good overall speed is achieved by keeping within your limits.

This principle was brought home to me when I climbed Mont Blanc. I set off with a group of men, all of whom were faster runners than I.

As we were roped together, I tried to match their pace. In a short time I was exercising harder than I could comfortably maintain. Not only was I unable to concentrate on foot placement, but I was soon breathing very heavily and needed a ‘quick stop to get my breath back’ and to calm my wobbly legs.

After this had happened a couple of times, the light bulb came on. If we all went at just a slightly slower speed, I would not get out of breath, I would not need to stop and recover, and we would all get to the top more quickly and safely – and so it was.

Adopting this approach on your walking holiday may mean that you start each slope at a slower pace than some of your companions, but do not feel guilty or worry about trying to keep up. Think tortoise and hare: stick to a steady pace and you may well pass your fellow walkers, their hands on their knees, sweaty and out of breath, before you reach the top.

Even if that doesn’t happen, remember that it is not uncommon for a group who walk at the same speed on the flat to find they have different comfortable speeds when tackling hills.

One more tip. If you are walking up hill at around the same speed as someone just in front of you, try imagining that you are attached to them by a rope and that they are gently pulling you up the hill. It may seem strange, but it does work!

A good pace when descending is defined by control, but control in moderation.

Too little and you run the risk of taking a tumble; too much control and you send considerable force though your legs and knees each time you plant your foot.

Posture


Positioning your body correctly will be a great help in keeping a steady pace.

When ascending

  • Shorter steps will help you to avoid over-reaching when you plant your foot, something which will help you maintain balance and control on rough, loose, uneven ground.
  • Aim to lean into the hill slightly so your weight is not pulling you back down.
  • If it is really steep and you are not using poles, use your arms as additional levers and push off your thighs as you walk. This is a trick frequently used by fell runners when walking on the very steepest hills.

When descending

  • On less-steep terrain, you should aim to lean outwards and ideally move with a light, skimming step. A solid foot plant will send all your weight through your leg, leading to increased soreness of your front thigh – the quadriceps muscle.
  • On steeper slopes, you naturally have to lean backwards to keep your balance. Aim to land on your heel, not your toes.
  • In either case, do not look down at your feet. Instead, look two to three metres in front. This gives you time to pick out the best line and to choose where to plant your feet. It may seem a little strange at first, but with practice you will find you move faster and stumble less.

Poles


As someone from a running background, I use to be a pole snob. I thought they were unnecessary for fit people like me. How wrong I was. After one session using a friend’s I was hooked – not just when ascending, but descending as well.

During the upward climb, poles allow you to utilise the strength of your upper body to propel yourself upward. On the way back down, they bolster your balance and decrease the force transferred through your knees.

If you’re considering using poles, take a look at our in-depth article on the subject.

Preparation


Like any form of exercise, walking up and down hills becomes easier with practice, as your cardiovascular and muscular systems adapt to the new challenge. To experience those high-up views without having your breath taken in advance, slowly build hills into your daily life before your walking holiday begins.

Natural hill training

Ideally, you should intentionally set out on shorter walks over hilly terrain. While big hills are great, even routes will smaller hills will help. As you climb your hill, try doing one of two things.

  1. Focus on finding a good, steady rhythm. You should be ascending at a comfortable pace. In athlete terms, you are working on your ‘race pace’.
  2. Walk up the hill as fast as possible. Yes, this will be a little more uncomfortable and you will need to stop at the top (or maybe even on the way up) to recover your breath, but this is how to give yourself an added fitness boost, just like an athlete who does interval training.

Daily life training

Walking on hills is basically going up and down. Training and fitness benefits can therefore be gained from doing the same movements in a man-made environment – i.e. by always taking the stairs rather than using the lift.

Most of the soreness you feel after a hilly walk, especially in your front thighs, the quadriceps, comes from the downhill section, not the climb. Getting your muscles trained for the descents is key to reducing this as much as possible, so don’t neglect to walk down the stairs or escalator as well as up.

Gym training

For many of us, training is focused indoors at the gym – especially in the winter. As well as doing some focused strength-training exercises, you can easily build your climbing muscles using many of the cardio vascular machines. In particular,

  • cycling has great crossover as the action uses the same major leg muscles
  • stepper machines, where you should focus on keeping technique rather than always trying to go as hard as possible
  • ski machines are particularly useful if you plan on walking with poles as this will strengthen your arm muscles as well
  • elliptical machines, especially ones where you can change the gradient so that you are ‘going uphill’.

We will look at suggested exercises and training programmes in next month’s issue.

Keep in mind that our bodies adapt to the particular training stimulus we give them. If you are very fit as a runner or cyclist but you aren’t a regular walker, you still need to do some walking training as part of your preparation if you want to avoid feeling sore.

As a regular runner, who at the time could run round the Yorkshire 3 Peaks in under 3 hours 30 minutes, I was left as stiff as a board after walking with a friend for around eight hours because different muscle actions are involved.

Clothing

Choosing what to wear is another important part of pre-walk preparation. Don’t forget to wear layers so you can shed a top or two when approaching a more strenuous section like a hill and avoid that flustered, sweaty feeling. Read our layering tips for more information.

If you need any more convincing, here’s a spoiler from the top – happy hill walking!





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