Should You Run or Hike That Hill?

By Jason Koop, CTS Coaching Director and author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”

Chances are, if you are asking the question, you should power-hike (walk). At slower speeds, walking is a more economical form of locomotion than running. It is only when you speed up to near the 12-min/mile range on level ground that walking is less economical (Falls and Humphrey 1976; Margaria 1976; Glass and Dwyer 2007).

The practical decision to run or power-hike has to do with both the situation you are in and the difference in energy costs between the two forms of locomotion.

While most elite runners, particularly at the 50K and 50-mile distance, will choose to run anything they can in order to finish faster, they knowingly do so at the expense of economy and have to spike their efforts up the steepest climbs in order to continue running instead of slowing down to a power-hike. At shorter ultra distances, this strategy can work because winning a race is a good tradeoff as long as the increase in effort is reasonable. However, most ultrarunners are not in that position. Most want to finish as fast as they can, but prioritizing economy and effort level over short-term speed, specifically when choosing whether to walk or run, will almost always end up saving the average ultrarunner time. For the average ultrarunner—and definitely anyone flirting with cutoff times—running when you should be power-hiking burns a lot of energy and takes a toll on your system. Any time you gain in the effort will likely be lost (plus additional time) when you are forced to slow down.

Now, what speed you should choose for power-hiking is a more complicated question due to individual variability, course specificity, terrain technicality, and fatigue. The preferred walk-to-run transition speed is around 2.1 meters per second or 12:46 min/mile on flat ground (Beuter and Lalonde 1988; Hreljac 1993; Diedrich and Warren 1995). This means that if you begin walking and gradually increase your speed, you will naturally transition from a walk to a run at about this pace. The scientific explanations vary, but one thing is certain: At speeds slower than the preferred walk-to-run transition point, on level ground, it is energetically optimal to walk (Falls and Humphrey 1976; Margaria 1976; Dwyer 2007). This means running at a 12- to 13-min/mile pace requires more cardiovascular effort and more energy than walking at a 12- to 13-min/mile pace. This balance changes with increases in grade and differences in surface. Generally speaking, the speed at which you should transition slows down as the surface gets more technical and grades get steeper. To put it in practical terms, if you are running on any normal climb (4 to 15 percent grade) around 18- to 19-min/ mile or slower, it’s in your best interest to drop to a power-hike, even at the expense of a few extra seconds at the top. You will be far more economical, and the required effort is substantially lower. As a bonus, you can take the opportunity to take in a few calories.

To illustrate this concept, I put one of my athletes on a treadmill at a pace that was in between a walk and a run for her (see figure): an 18-min/mile pace at a 13 percent grade. I had her alternate running and walking for 3 minutes at a time to demonstrate to her the difference in cardiovascular effort required between the two forms of locomotion. The results are easy to see. Running requires a higher heart rate and thus a greater cardiovascular effort than walking at the same speed.


Excerpted from “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning“.

Beuter, A., and F. Lalonde. 1988. “Analysis of a Phase-Transition in Human Locomotion Using Singularity Theory.” Neuroscience Research Communications 3 (3): 127–132.

Diedrich, Frederick J., and William H. Warren Jr. 1995. “Why Change Gaits? Dynamics of the Walk-Run Transition.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 21 (1): 183.

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Falls, Harold B., and L. Dennis Humphrey. 1976. “Energy Cost of Running and Walking in Young Women.” Medicine and Science in Sports 8 (1): 9–13.

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Hreljac, Alan. 1993. “Preferred and Energetically Optimal Gait Transition Speeds in Human Locomotion.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 25 (10): 1158–1162.

Stephen, Gregory Byron Dwyer, and American College of Sports Medicine. 2007. ACSM’s Metabolic Calculations Handbook. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Margaria, Rodolfo, and R. Margaria. 1976. Biomechanics and Energetics of Muscular Exercise: Clarendon Press Oxford.

Comments 11

  1. Pingback: Brisk Walking vs. Hiking – mywellbeinggoal

  2. Any similar insights for XC mountain bike events? We usually encounter multiple climbs with steep grades. The objective is to be as fast as you can overall, so maxing out the HR repeatedly is common for me.

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  4. On the other hand, Gediminas Grinius suggests to run the occasional 10-20m runnable sections during longer climbs to give the hiking muscles a short break -> which was new to me because when I am in full power-hiking mode I rarely break my stride until I reach the top – and I used to feel somewhat annoyed by the people who are running past me on these short sections just to be caught again once the grade steepens 😉

    1. Glad you mentioned it 🙂 Huge surprise to see myself on Youtube = next time must be careful of hidden cameras 🙂

  5. There is a recent paper on this, that agrees with your observation:
    Giovanelli, N., Ortiz, A. L. R., Henninger, K., & Kram, R. (2016). Energetics of vertical kilometer foot races; is steeper cheaper?. Journal of Applied Physiology, 120(3), 370-375.

  6. Thanks Jason,
    I’ve know this intuitively for many decades for myself, but nice to see some evidence, (albeit less HR difference than I thought).
    Doing the Catalina marathon 12 yrs in a row & a handful of 50k trail runs, I almost always adopted this technique. Plus, it seems to work different muscles in different ways allowing for a bit of re-group before the next runable section.
    And, as you mentioned, it’s easier to hydrate & snack during power hiking. I think these two factors alone allowed me to be stronger with a bit less leg fatigue, (& more nutrition), in the last miles to finish strong.
    Funny how some folks “running” up hill weren’t usually too happy to see me power-walking alongside, & sometimes, if steep enough, passing them.
    Happy trails, scott

    1. Scott, I read your response to this article and I have a question for you, please.
      I run at a technical bike trail at a metro park in Michigan.
      It’s quite hilly in these back woods and some hills to me are ginormous.
      When I run on asphalt I run a 9 and change mile comfortably.
      My question for you is at what pace should I run the technical bike trail which is very hilly?
      I hope I make sense trying to explain my situation and thank you for your time.

      Sincerely, Fred Lopiccolo

      1. Hi Fred
        I’m from Michigan. Which park? I’ve found a trail with good elevation changes (around 100ft per mile) will add a minimum of 1:30-2:30 per mile. Hills and off-road terrain are very humbling! We need to concentrate way more, and the risks of errors are way higher especially as the mileage ads up. I’ve found great technique and power hiking is almost as fast as running on the steepest hills and heart rate and legs are way better for the future!

  7. Pingback: Should You Run or Walk That Hill? - CTS | Dispatch Radio

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