How to Walk Uphill

Benefits of Walking Uphill and How to Do It Right

Walking Uphill
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Many walkers have a love/hate relationship with walking uphill. It takes extra exertion and so you know it is probably doing good things for your body. But that exertion gets you huffing, puffing, and maybe even sweating, which you may find unpleasant. What are the benefits of walking uphill, and how can you do it efficiently?

Benefits of Walking Uphill

Many good things happen when you add some incline to your walks.

  • Working Different Leg Muscles: Walking uphill works the muscles at the front of your thighs (the quadriceps) as well as your buttock muscles more than walking on level ground. That is good for balancing your leg muscles, so you don't end up overtraining your glutes and hamstrings (the muscles at the back of your thighs) while neglecting your quadriceps.
  • Burning More Calories: Walking uphill, you are burning an extra 3 to 5 calories per minute over what you would burn walking on the level. This difference has been measured in metabolic equivalents (MET). Walking at a typical exercise pace on the level rates 4.3 MET while walking uphill rates 5.3 MET for a 5 percent grade and a whopping 8 MET for grades from 6 percent to 15 percent, giving you the same exertion as jogging.
  • Increased Exercise Intensity: Walking uphill boosts your heart rate, even at a slow pace. You can ensure your walking is at the moderate to vigorous intensity level of exercise where you will get the most benefits for reducing health risks and building fitness.
  • Specific Training for Hilly Walks: If you are going to walking in a hilly area, such as on the Camino de Santiago, it is good to train with hills beforehand. Walking uphill will get easier the more you do it.

Tips for Walking Uphill

You can get the most out of your incline workouts using these techniques.

  • Warm up. Going uphill will work your muscles more intensely. They are going to be lifting you as well as propelling your forward. It is best to plan on warming up with a walk on the level for five minutes before you tackle a steep hill.
  • Shorten your steps. Like a bike shifting to a new gear to go uphill, shorten your steps when you are walking uphill. This will make it easier to lift your body up the incline with each step.
  • Maintain or quicken your step rate. With shorter steps, you won't be going as far with each step. You can maintain your step rate, knowing it will take a bit longer because of the hill. Or, you can try shorter, quicker steps on the hill if you want to maintain your pace.
  • Lean only slightly into the hill. It is natural to lean into the hill a bit, but if you lean too much you will put yourself off balance. Try to keep that lean to a minimum. Keep your torso over your hips. Do not lean backward as that will unbalance you. Another reason to avoid leaning is that either leaning too far forward or leaning back can strain your lower back.
  • Don't raise your knees too high. You shouldn't be lifting your knees higher than 6 inches. If you find yourself raising your knees too much, you need to shorten your step even more.
  • Monitor your exertion level. Hills will raise your heart rate, breathing, and exertion level as more muscles are used to carry you both up and along. Keep your exertion at an intensity where you can still speak in sentences rather than just gasping out single words. That may mean that you go slower. On the other hand, you can use hills to add high-intensity intervals to your walking routine.
  • Check your heart rate: Hills are a good way for slower walkers or highly-fit walkers to achieve a higher heart rate level. Check your heart rate on hills to see what various rates feel like for exertion and breathing intensity. You can use a heart rate monitor, a heart rate app on your mobile phone, or a fitness band that detects your heart rate.
  • Use trekking poles if desired. Some people use trekking poles for hiking uphill. These can give a little assist from your upper body in helping you go uphill. They also can help you be stable when you inevitably go downhill.

    What Goes Up Must Come Down

    If your uphill walking is done on a treadmill, you won't have to do any downhill walking (unless your treadmill has a negative incline setting). Out in the real world, you usually have to do both. Be sure you have the right downhill walking technique. Bend your knees and allow your stride to lengthen when you go downhill. Going downhill is harder on your knees than walking uphill.

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    Article Sources

    • Ainsworth BE, Haskell WL, Herrmann SD, et al. 2011 Compendium of Physical ActivitiesMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011;43(8):1575-1581. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e31821ece12.
    • Swain DP, Brawner CA. ACSMs Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014.