Many people think that running is the fastest way to get somewhere on foot. While this may be true over short distances and on flatter terrain, there are certain situations where hiking, or power hiking, is more efficient than running. Power hiking is a fast-paced version of hiking that trail runners employ strategically on steep or technical sections of the trail. When used appropriately, it is a powerful tool that can improve your trail running efficiency, help you go farther, and result in a faster finish time.
Power hiking effectively is a skill that must be learned and practiced. In this post, we’ll cover all the essential information you need to start incorporating this technique into your trail running training and races.
Power Hiking vs. Regular Hiking
One of the main differences between power hiking and regular hiking is the speed and intensity, with regular hiking being slower and less intense. With power hiking, you are hiking with a purpose, generating more force, moving faster, and maintaining a different posture. While regular hikers usually have a relatively upright posture, power hikers lean forward on steep terrain and keep their chests more or less parallel with the gradient.
Power hiking also differs from regular hiking in terms of underlying motivations. People partake in regular hiking for a wide variety of reasons, such as leisure, exercise, exploring an area, or simply wanting to get out and spend a day in nature. Power hiking, on the other hand, is a strategic choice that runners make to help them achieve their goals during a race or while training.
Having the right mindset is a crucial component of power hiking. It’s not about giving up out of exhaustion and walking. Instead, it focuses on employing a set of techniques to maximize efficiency, run farther, and maintain a steady pace throughout long races.
Why Should You Power Hike?
Power hiking is a fantastic tool for new trail runners to incorporate as they build up their fitness and stamina, but experienced and professional trail runners also use it to boost efficiency when running long distances. Here are some of the reasons you should consider incorporating power hiking into your training and trail race plans.
Prioritizing efficiency is the key to success in endurance sports like long-distance trail running. Since power hiking helps runners conserve energy while maintaining a steady pace, it can play a crucial role in a runner’s success. While elite ultra trail runners may be able to repeatedly run up mountainous terrain over long distances, most people do not have the fitness or stamina to maintain a good pace while running the entire way.
This is because running uphill uses a lot of energy. Continuing to run on a steep uphill climb may improve your time for that particular section, but it will drain a lot of your energy. As a result, you may run the rest of your route slower or have a harder time going as far as you planned. Power hiking will likely result in taking longer to complete that particular section of trail. However, by conserving energy, you can improve your pace for the rest of your run, which results in a faster overall time.
Effective Training Tool
Whether you’re new to trail running or a seasoned veteran, power hiking during your training can help you run farther, improve your endurance, and achieve faster times. If you’re just getting started with trail running, power hiking is a fantastic way to build up your fitness and endurance. Running is the most sport-specific way to train, but running long distances over hilly terrain may not be realistic for everyone – especially at first. Start with some shorter trail runs and power hike as much of the trail as you’d like while your mind and body adjust to the demands of trail running. You can even power hike an entire trail to help make the transition from hiking to running easier. Make sure to focus on your efficiency and cadence and hike with a purpose.
Power hiking is also an excellent training tool for experienced trail runners. Some of the best endurance mountain athletes and ultra runners in the world power hike with weighted vests as training. The added weight increases the training stimulus and builds strength in the glutes, bigger leg muscles, and stabilizing muscles. This improves tissue resilience and reduces your risk of injury, but it can also help increase your hiking and running speed.
If you’re an experienced runner, consider wearing a weight vest or using a backpack with a water bladder to add weight to your power hiking training and make it more challenging. Start with a low weight and work up from there (20 pounds is a good target weight and provides an ideal training stimulus for most people). Be mindful of your form and technique – it should be identical to the way you power hike without any added weight.
When and Where to Use The Technique
Power hiking is not something you should randomly throw into your runs. It’s all about evaluating the situation and thinking about how you can maximize your speed and efficiency while minimizing your energy expenditure over the course of the entire run.
When and where you can best employ power hiking is highly individual and varies from one run to the next. While there are no set rules, here are some of the situations where you should consider incorporating power hiking. In each of these situations, be realistic about how you are feeling and what you are capable of, evaluate the terrain and your energy levels, and then use your best judgment to determine whether power hiking will help you achieve your goals.
Steep terrain is one of the most common applications of power hiking. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, “athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking rather than running” on inclines steeper than 15.8 degrees. This is because human biomechanics are altered when we run compared to when we walk.
The study acknowledges there is individual variation, and there’s no specific incline where everyone should switch from running to power hiking. Each person is different, and what works for you will be highly dependent on your fitness, aerobic capacity, technique, and experience. Keep in mind that even if you are physically fit enough to run an entire climb, it doesn’t mean it’s in your best interest to do so.
To find out what works best for you, try choosing a trail that has some steeper uphill sections and that you can access regularly. Experiment with running and power hiking those same sections on different days to see how it impacts your pace and fatigue levels for the rest of the trail.
Long Runs and Races
Long trail runs and races are also common occasions that runners use power hiking. While you may be able to maintain a steady pace on a shorter trail run, it becomes very difficult to do that over long distances with varying terrain and steep inclines.
As a result, power hiking can be a highly effective part of your race plan and strategy. If you’re preparing for a longer race or run, take a look at the map and elevation profile of the route to determine sections where power hiking may be appropriate for you. You can use this information to create a training plan or race plan that strategically incorporates power hiking, but prepare to adjust this based on your perceived exertion and energy levels during your run.
Technical Sections of Trail
Sometimes power hiking is effective on sections of trail that are especially difficult to navigate for technical reasons rather than because they are steep. If a section is very slippery or muddy or has numerous obstacles like tree roots and rocks, it may be safer and more efficient for you to power hike that section.
Ascents at High Altitude
Running at high altitudes is challenging, especially if you’re not accustomed to it. You may have to power hike on uphill sections that you would be able to run at lower elevations. If you’re not adjusted to higher altitudes, allow yourself more flexibility and plan on power hiking more than you may be used to.
Anytime You’re Feeling Excess Fatigue
Ideally, runners employ power hiking to conserve energy before it becomes absolutely necessary. Even so, you will likely experience moments where you simply are too fatigued to continue running on an uphill section of trail. This could be due to normal day-to-day variations in performance, or perhaps you burned up too much energy early in your run with a pacing mistake. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself feeling excessively fatigued during a run, it’s a good idea to manage your exertion and pace with power hiking. Don’t view it as giving up – instead, consider it a tool to help you reach the finish line. By power hiking with a purpose, you may surprise yourself and finish the race or training run faster than you expected.
Power Hiking Tips
Now that you understand why, when, and where to power hike, let’s go over some practical tips to develop your skills.
Practice Makes Perfect
Without practicing power hiking during your training, you won’t be able to use it effectively on race days. Work on your power hiking technique by doing repetitions on steep slopes. You can power hike some entire trails, but also make sure to alternate running and power hiking at other times during your training so that you are prepared to do this effectively during races. Incorporating power hiking into your training also helps you develop the skills and awareness needed to determine when it makes sense for you to hike rather than run a particular section of the route.
Rugged, steep terrain is the best training if your goal is to use power hiking on hilly sections of trail races. If you don’t have access to this type of terrain where you live, you can practice on a steep road, using a stairwell in a tall building, or on a treadmill with an incline. Compare how you feel running vs. power hiking the same section or distance and use this information to begin evaluating when power hiking may be an effective tool for you to use on your runs.
Posture and Body Position
Maintaining good posture is a crucial part of power hiking efficiency. If you’re power hiking on a steep incline, you should aim to keep your torso at a similar angle to the terrain you are ascending. Leaning into the hill from the waist allows you to maintain a lower center of gravity and preserve your forward momentum. Make sure to keep your airways open by avoiding rounding your shoulders and hunching over. Maintain an open chest with shoulders back so that you can keep breathing well and getting oxygen into your lungs. Keep in mind that if you’re power hiking on a flatter, technical surface, your body will be more upright.
There are several different ways to use your arms effectively while power hiking. Some people prefer to swing them as they move to maintain forward momentum, while others find it helps to press down on their knees to propel themselves upwards. Using trekking poles also works well for some athletes since they help you maintain an upright posture while engaging the arms to do some of the work. Test each method on hilly terrain and see what feels best for you.
Taking shorter strides allows you to keep your cadence up while power hiking and recruits the powerful glute muscles. While we recommend using a shorter stride for better efficiency, each person is different – experiment with varying stride lengths to find what works best for you.
Good power hikers can hike faster than some people run. Anything above 4 miles per hour (equating to a 15-minute mile) is considered a fast hiking pace, with most regular hikers averaging about 2 miles per hour. Experienced trail runners and power hikers may be able to achieve a pace of 5 miles per hour, which equates to a 12-minute mile.
During your power hikes, track your times to figure out your current hiking speed. Don’t get concerned if you can’t achieve a pace of 4-5 miles per hour right away. It takes time and practice to work up to these speeds, so use it as a benchmark when working on your training goals and evaluating your progress.
Goal Setting and Monitoring Progress
Once you know your current hiking speed, you can begin setting goals and pushing yourself to go faster over time. While it’s always fun to try new trails, having some regular trails where you can easily keep track of your progress is an excellent way to measure your success and see your improvement. Write down your current times and speeds on these regular trails, and track your progress each time you repeat that trail.
Create a Training Plan and Stick With It
Consistency is one of the most important aspects when it comes to success and progress in any sport. Create a power hiking training plan and stick with it. You can train with a buddy to help you stay motivated or enlist the help of a professional by hiring a coach.
Learning how to power hike efficiently and when to power hike instead of running are skills that need to be developed and mastered over time. The more you practice power hiking as part of your trail running training, the better you’ll understand when to use it, how to do it, and how it impacts your pace, fatigue levels, and overall times.
Just remember to keep a positive mindset and listen to your body. Power hiking is a tool to help you complete a run in a sustainable way for you and can help you achieve better results than if you tried to run the entire course.