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UTA – Hills and Stairs – Technique and Training Tips

UTA Hill Technique

The Ultra Trail Australia courses are tough. The combination of hills and stairs will take a toll on your cardio-vascular system, your body and your mind. Incorporating both hill training and stair training is essential to both your enjoyment and your success on race day.

Uphill training speaks for itself. If you haven’t trained on some decent hills and stairs, then your cardiovascular system and overall energy levels are going to suffer at some point during the race. The better prepared your climbing legs are, the easier you will find it on race day.

Downhill and downstairs training is what most people neglect, or at least underestimate the importance of in their training.

The UTA100 has 4500m of climbing, but also 4500m of descending. Running downhill and downstairs is especially hard on your quadriceps muscles (front of your thighs) and can quickly turn into sore knees or ITBs if you haven’t prepared properly.

Running downhill and downstairs can cause a DOMS effect in your quad muscles
Make you Quads strong before the race!

When we run downhills our quad muscles act as brakes. They help to slow our descent so we don’t continue to accelerate. If you have trained in the hills and included a lot of downhill running, it is not uncommon to suffer from DOMs (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) in your quads. A similar sensation to what your upper body feels like if you return to the gym after a long break.

DOMS is caused by eccentric stress, where the muscles are working to resist lengthening. DOMS not only produces delayed soreness, but almost immediate weakness in the muscle. The weakness peaks after 30 minutes (not ideal in a race!) and the pain usually occurs 24 – 72 hours after exercise.

When training for the UTA22, 50 or 100, you should start your training regime with relatively short downhill runs, and gradually increase both the volume and the intensity.  Your quads will adapt to the stress you are placing on them and they will become stronger. This “adaptation” is exactly what you need in order to develop the strength you will require on race day. (Learn more about UTA training Plans)

The extra strength created by a “DOMS” inducing downhill training session will last between four to six weeks.

In order to maximise the chance of it being effective on race day, you should try and plan an appropriate training session between three to six weeks out from the event.

Getting a run down Kedumba 3-6 weeks prior to your race would be ideal. Two weeks out is a little risky because you might still carry some fatigue into the race depending on how hard the session was.


The technique you use for both climbing and descending can have a huge impact on how well your legs survive through to the finish line.

Running Uphill:

Use your glutes when running uphill. You need your quads for the way back down!
Use your glutes when running uphill. You need your quads for the way back down!
  • Keep your posture upright and avoid leaning into the hill. This will allow you to use your glutes more and your quads less (you need your quads for the downhills)
  • Try to maintain a high cadence and take short steps (your cadence will probably drop depending on how steep the hill is and your relative level of fitness, but keep it as high as you comfortably can)
    • Think of it like using the granny gear on a mountain bike. Spinning your legs around quickly is easier on the muscles.
  • You will almost always land on the front of your foot when you are climbing. If it isn’t too steep then every now and then you can deliberately drop your heels so that they just touch the ground (for about 20-30 steps on each leg). This will give your calf muscles some brief respite from the workload.
  • If it is very steep and feels difficult to physically continue running, then you are better off walking and saving some energy. The amount of time you might lose walking up a steep section of hill is negligible compared to the amount of time you can lose later in
  • the race if you have “blown up”

Running Upstairs:

  • Stay upright so you primarily use your glute muscles
  • Take the stairs one at a time. This is easier on your heart and lungs and your quads than trying to tackle them two at a time.
  • Depending on the depth and height of the stairs, try to get your whole foot on the step when you can. This is also relevant when walking up stairs). If your foot lands flat (as opposed to on your toes on the front edge of the step) then your calf muscles will get a rest.

Walking Upstairs:

Don't do it like this!
Don’t do it like this!
  • Walking upstairs is a lot more energy efficient than running up, so think carefully and try to plan in advance where on the course you intend to walk.
  • This can actually make a section like Nellie’s Glen something to look forward to rather than dread! “Yay – a walking break”.
  • Like Running Upstairs, stay upright so you primarily use your glute muscles

Downhill and Downstairs Technique:

This way to Narrowneck.
This way to Narrowneck.

Descending is hard on your body, even with good technique. It can be especially punishing if your technique is poor.

Your main focus should be on taking short strides and keeping your cadence high. 175 – 185 steps/minute is a good guide. You can download a metronome app on your phone and use it in training to get a feel for what 175 – 185 feels like.

There is a tendency for people to try and “make up some lost ground” by running the downhill sections quickly. It is much easier on your heart and lungs, so it doesn’t feel like particularly hard work. Most people, unless taught otherwise, will increase their speed by lengthening their stride. This causes exponentially more impact on the body (up to 6 times body weight on steep downhill sections) and increases the likelihood of inflicting a DOMS effect on your quads. The rest of the race won’t be much fun if your quads are “dead”.

Running downstairs is similar. Use every step. Don’t try and take them two at a time. If they are really steep there is often a handrail, so use the handrail to ease some of the load on your quads. Leki (hiking) poles can also be useful for this if you are worried about your quads or knees not surviving the event.

If the stairs are very technical then you can use your arms as a type of counter balance. Keeping them high and wide can help to improve your stability as your body weight shifts from side to side.

A great way to improve your run specific strength, is by incorporating a regular strength routine.  This 10min kettlebell routine, is ideal for building strength.  We also recommend this Essential Core Workout to build a strong core.

If you are after a specific Training Plan for Ultra Trail Australia that incorporates strength, volume and trail technique, we have daily plans available, for all distances and types of runners

Videos To Watch To Improve Your UTA Hill Technique

Here is a video clip taken on the Furber Stairs (the final 1500m stair climb to the finish line). It demonstrates what has been discussed in this article about how to safely climb and descend stairs.

Watch this clip to hear what TNF guru Andrew Tuckey has to say about hill training and stair training.

Written by Mark Green of The Body Mechanic