The Trail Runner’s Dilemma: Is Walking Up a Trail More Efficient Than Running?

You don't always need to run in slow-motion up that hill

trail running walking
East Road/Ascent Xmedia/Getty Images

According to a pair of recent studies — one published in European Journal of Applied Physiology, another available as a preprint here — walking up a steep incline can sometimes be as effective for trail runners as running.

In the initial study, a team of researchers led by former Penn runner Clarissa Whiting had 10 different trail runners run on the world’s steepest treadmill, at inclines of 30 degrees. The findings confirmed that uphill running is fundamentally different than uphill walking; it necessitates a 40% quicker cadence and feet spend 40% more time in the air.

A follow-up study, meanwhile, sought to deduce whether that running was doing a good job at getting trail runners to the top of the hill. You don’t need to have run high in Appalachia or the Cascades to know that running uphill can sometimes feel like a fruitless, energy-wasting enterprise. It’s often easier to “saddle off” and walk a harsh gradient.

To demonstrate this point, researchers recruited another 10 elite trail runners, to run at zero, 5-, 10- and 15-degree slopes. At slopes over 15 degrees, the runners naturally shifted from walking to running and back to walking as a natural response to muscular fatigue in their legs. The exercise scientists contend this is the body’s best response to an insurmountable hill: use every tool in the toolbox.

Their eventual conclusion: walking uphill isn’t more effective than running for trail runners. It’s just another option, and one that often proves necessary. Stay tuned for more science on the matter, especially once researchers have a chance to test metrics like heart rate values and energy consumption on actual trails.

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