If engineers thought big steps made life easier, then every stairwell would have massive steps. Instead they are smaller, more manageable step heights. From this approach we can develop a smarter hill running technique.
I usually have to break out some basic trigonometry when discussing hill running form with the team. Believe me, I am not a mathematician but, I find the following visual makes a lot of sense:
1) Flat land stride length:
2) Hill Stride Length*:
In the image above, the blue arrows represent a distance (x) between foot contact points on flat land. In the second image, the blue arrows are the exact same distance (x) apart on the hill, as they compare to flat ground. However, the hypotenuse formed from a hill actually makes the horizontal distance, closer together (x-3 inches). If there runner attempted to maintain the same horizontal distance per stride, the steps on hill would be further apart. IE: The green arrow are the same horizontal distance if it were not for the length added by the hill (x+3 inches). [I hope that make sense.] This is why I instruct my runners to chop their stride down, increase the number of steps-per-minute, and prioritize maintaining intensity rather than pace. All this being an attempt to maintain the same work output as flat ground.
In terms of steps in a stairwell, the athlete is opting for the smaller step over the larger. Yes, at the bottom of the hill other runners might pass your athlete but, by the top your athlete will be the strongest and able to carry on with the race; often passing those who gained ground at the bottom but, now need to recover.
Another piece of hill running form is where the hips “are”. Some coaches say “lean into the hill”. I prefer “hips pressed” because leaning suggests the idea that bending over from the waist is productive. When it comes to the physics of hill running, bending from the waist turns your body into a limp noodle. The force applied at toe-off has to travel up the leg, around the hips and over the torso. With the hips “pressed-in” the athlete has a nice forward lean from the ankle. Therefore, the force is applied straight through their center of mass; making every step more efficient.
Small fast steps and hips pressed… Races are always first to the finish, not to the top of the hill! Good running form should aid a strong finishing position.