When to Walk in an Ultra

Ultrarunners walk. It’s just one piece of ultrarunning and knowing when and how long is essential to finishing at your best. The easy answer to the question of when to walk, aka power hike, in an ultra is, you walk all the uphills. But if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t be ultrarunners now would we?

Do all ultrarunners power hike? Yes, at the 100 mile distance everyone is going to do some form of power hiking on the uphills. At the 50k distance, it will depend on how steep and long the hills are. At the 50 mile and 100k distances, pretty much everyone is doing some power hiking.

The factors that go into a decision to power hike rather than run are: the length of the race, the steepness of the hill, the length of the hill, your training/conditioning, current weather/trail conditions and your current physical status. None of these factors can be considered without thinking about the others. It’s a multifaceted decision. The only one that takes priority over the others is your current physical status.

Your current physical status is how all of your bodily systems are functioning. Uphills can be a perfect opportunity to rehydrate and refuel. The slower pace may allow your body to absorb water and fuel easier, but don’t count on it. Hiking up a long steep slope can be just as taxing as running hard on level ground. If it is, and your stomach protesting at everything you put into it, you may be better off trying to refuel on the downhill or on a flat. If you’re experiencing pain, hiking an uphill is a good time to assess the situation. You’ll be using different muscle groups to climb, which may help you rule in or out particular muscles as the problem. It will also give sore/cramping muscles a chance to recuperate.

There may be times where hiking flats and downhills is the most appropriate course of action given your physical status and you shouldn’t be ashamed of this, at least you’re still moving forward. If you’re vomiting or have diarrhea walking/hiking is a must. You need to give your body a chance to regulate and it can’t do that if you’re pushing the redline.

The length of the race plays a major roll in when you begin your power hiking. The longer the race the earlier you’re going to begin hiking. Changing to a hike allows you to engage different muscles from those you use for running. This change gives muscles a chance to rest and prepare for the next time they’ll be needed as the primary force. This is true even in a very flat race with little to no uphills.

The grade (steepness) of a hill can demand that you hike rather than run. At some point, a hill becomes so steep it’s just easier and often faster to hike. Whether this is an 8% grade or 15% grade depends on you. Research says a grade of 15% is the point at which it becomes more energy efficient to hike than to run up a slope. However, keep in mind this research was done with individuals who were fresh. In other words, they hadn’t already finished 75 miles and they didn’t have 95 miles to go. The best way for you to figure out where you are, is to practice. Train on all types of grades and hit them at different times in your long training runs.

The length of an uphill is important too. Maybe you’ve come to a hill with a moderate grade and thought, “It’s runnable.” But is it runnable for three miles? It’s okay to start running it and then decide a bit later that it’s no longer runnable. You can even take a run/walk approach to these types of uphills.

Weather and trail conditions can also dictate when you should be running or hiking. Rain and snow can change visibility. Swampy conditions can conceal rocks and other hazards. Heat can change a mild runnable slope into a death march.

What you don’t want to do is walk due to a mental block or because you’ve hit a psychologically dark mood during your run. The only way to avoid this is by having a plan of action. When you get the first inkling of a drop in your mood or mental state, ask yourself if you’ve kept up on hydration, electrolytes and fuel. If you haven’t, start there. If those systems are where they need to be, initiate your positive mood plan. You can use imagery, mantras, recalling when you’ve overcome other challenges, or repeating positive words. For these to be most effective, you need to develop them in your training.

Your training is the key to knowing when you should hike and when you should run. Training on hills is going to give you the strength (mental and physical) to conquer those hills that are within the realm of sensible and the wisdom to know when it’s not sensible. The definition of what is runnable and what’s not is going to change, and you need to be able to evaluate yourself and each hill under the current circumstances.

Hips and Running

    Running is a whole body exercise and because of this, you need to strengthen your entire body.  If you don’t do any other strength training, do hip strengthening. Your hips drive you forward. There is a bunch of research out there that supports the importance of hip strength in preventing injuries in runners. Additionally, the fastest and surest way to improve your efficiency and speed is by doing hip strengthening. Why is hip strength so important? Your hips are a part of your core muscle group which is where all of your movements, upstream and downstream, originate from.
Weak hips are actually fairly common among runners of all distances. And of course the farther you run the more likely you are to end up with an injury related to your weak hips. Your hips help stabilize your pelvis as you run. When I say hips, the muscles I’m including are: hip flexors, the outside and inside of your upper leg, your glutes, and your hamstrings. Hip flexors and hamstrings work together to move your leg back and forth. The inner and outer upper leg muscles make sure those leg swings are aligned properly with the rest of your body.  Runners hip flexors and hamstrings tend to be tight exacerbating the problem of the weak hips.
So what does weak hips cause? ITBand syndrome, runners knee, shin splints, bursitis, plantar fasciitis, and low back pain. As it turns out, hip strength alone is only one part of this equation. Don’t throw up your hands thinking, “this is too much!” just yet because this part is easy and doesn’t require work outside of your running. It’s a matter of being aware, aka proprioception; it’s knowing where your body is in space in relation to the other parts of your body. Sounds complicated. It’s not. It’s a matter of knowing what it feels like for your hips to be in the right position and then making sure they are while you are running. Your spine and hips should be in a neutral balanced position. To keep your hips in a neutral balanced position, think of your pelvis as a bowl. As you run, don’t let your bowl spill out the front, tipping too far forward, or the back, tipping too far back. During your training runs check in with your hips and spine asking yourself, are they were they are supposed to be. You can even do this throughout the day as you move around. Obviously, if they are not, correct them. Pretty soon this will become your form and you won’t have to think about it.
Alright so back to strengthening those hips. Whenever you are doing strength exercises you should focus on the body part you are using and use slow controlled movements. Using proper form during the exercise is more important than pushing your body to exhaustion. Perform these exercises three to four times a week. You want to do three sets of 10-20 repetitions.
  1. Bridges
  2. Jane Fonda’s
  3. inner thigh lift
  4. lunges
  5. piston squats
How to:
  1. Bridges: lay on your back with your arms down at your sides. Raise your hips as high as you can and hold for 2-3 seconds. You can progress to doing them with one leg, then two legs on a swiss ball, then single leg on the swiss ball.
  2. Jane Fonda’s: Lay on your side and lift the leg on top as high as you can. Hold your leg at the top for 2-3 seconds. Remember this should be a slow controlled movement. Don’t throw your leg up there because you could pull a groin.
  3. Inner thigh lift: stay on your side. Bend your upper leg and place your foot on the floor at your hips or knee. Lift your lower leg. Hold at the top for 2-3 second.
  4. Lunges: From a standing position, step forward and lower down until your front knee is bent at a 90 degree angle. Your knee should not be in front of your toes. Hold for 2-3 seconds and then do the other leg. You should be moving forward.
  5. Piston Squats. From a standing position, hold your arms out in front of you 90 degrees with your torso. Hold one leg up keeping it straight. Your foot should be 6-8 inches off the floor to start with. Bend your other leg, keeping your knee behind your toes. This one is difficult, so don’t be surprised if you can’t lower your self very far. Keep working at it.
Your hips are the key to injury prevention and improving your running in both speed and efficiency and what runner doesn’t want those three things?