CU-Boulder researchers discover optimal range of slopes for extreme uphill running

December 15, 2015

Running uphill on steep inclines is never easy, but researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered a range of slope angles that would allow an athlete to ascend a mountain most quickly.

“For either running or walking, slopes between 20 and 35 degrees require nearly the same amount of energy to climb the hill at the same vertical velocity,” said Rodger Kram, an associate professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Integrative Physiology and senior author of the study.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, is believed to be the first to examine the metabolic costs of human running and walking on such steep inclines.  

The research focused on the challenges posed by vertical kilometer (VK) races, which have grown in popularity in recent years in mountainous regions of the U.S. and Europe. Athletes run or walk up steep slopes ranging between 10 degrees and 30 degrees in order to ascend 1,000 meters over a distance of less than 5 kilometers, or about 3.1 miles.

The world record for a VK course is 29 minutes, 42 seconds and was set in Fully, Switzerland on a course with an average slope of 31 degrees. By comparison, elite runners can finish a 10-kilometer race on flat ground in less than 30 minutes.

The extreme slopes of VK courses inspired Kram and his colleagues to design a specialized treadmill that can reach inclines of up to 45 degrees.  Standard gymnasium treadmills only reach a maximum incline of around 9 degrees, he said, while a typical black diamond ski run slopes about 25 degrees.

“We wondered if there was an optimal incline for beating the VK world record,” said Kram. “If you were running up just a one degree incline, you’d have to run over 70 miles per hour to beat that record, which is impossible. And if the slope were 90 degrees, you’d need a rope and rock climbing equipment, which isn’t feasible either. We figured there was a perfect angle somewhere in between.”

Instead, the researchers found that there was actually an optimal range of slope angles, a “Goldilocks plateau” of between 20 and 35 degrees where the degree of incline doesn’t really matter and the same rate of ascent requires the same rate of energy expenditure,” Kram said.

Kram summarized the findings via an analogy: “Imagine that you are standing in Colorado at a trailhead where the base elevation is 9,000 feet. Your friend challenges you to race to the summit of the mountain, which tops out at 12,280 feet, i.e. 1,000 meters of elevation gain. There are several different trails that go to the summit. They are all pretty steep and some are extremely steep. One trail averages 10 degrees incline and the sign says it is 3.6 miles long. A second trail averages 30 degrees, but is only 1.25 miles long. A third trail averages 40 degrees, but only 1 mile long. To get to the summit the fastest, which trail should you choose and should you walk or run?

“Based on our research, we now know that choosing the second trail (30 degrees) and walking as fast as you can within your aerobic capacity is the fastest way to go,” he said.

The study focused on a vertical rate of ascent of just over 1 foot per second, a pace that the high-level athletes could sustain aerobically during the testing. At that speed, walking used about nine percent less energy than running. So, sub-elite athletes can ascend on very steep uphills faster by walking rather than running.

The study examined 15 competitive mountain runners as they ran and walked on the treadmill at seven different angles ranging from 9 to 39 degrees. The treadmill speed was set so that the vertical rate of ascent was the same.  Thus, the treadmill speeds were slower on the steeper angles. The athletes were unable to balance at angles above 40 degrees, suggesting a natural limit on the feasible slope for a VK competition.

“Very few people walk or run up such steep slopes, but by going to extremes, we broaden our horizons and investigate the limits to human performance,” said Kram.

As for amateur runners who aren’t planning to try a VK race anytime soon?  These findings indicate that you can still get a good aerobic workout simply by walking up very steep inclines, Kram said.

Nicola Giovanelli, a visiting scholar from the University of Udine, Italy; Amanda Ortiz, a CU-Boulder cross-country runner and undergraduate student in the Department of Integrative Physiology; and Keely Henninger, who now works for Nike, co-authored the study. All three are competitive mountain runners and Ortiz was the 2013 Junior World Mountain Running champion.

The University of Colorado Boulder Undergraduate Research Science Training (BURST) and Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) supported the research.

Boulder/Denver area runners who are interested in being a participant in future uphill running experiments should contact: uphillrunstudy@gmail.com

Contact:
Rodger Kram, 303-492-7984
rodger.kram@colorado.edu
Trent Knoss, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-735-0528
trent.knoss@colorado.edu