I have a confession to make: When I first moved to Colorado two years ago and started trail running, I would pause my running watch every time I walked. I didn’t want my final time (ahem, the time I shared on social media) to reflect how much time I wasn’t actually running. Finally, a friend called me out and said pace wasn’t the point; walking, a.k.a. “power hiking,” was a part of trail running, and by stopping my watch I wasn’t really embracing the spirit of the sport.

It was the phrase “power hiking” that made me change my perspective. Of course I couldn’t run the same paces on trails that I was running on roads; the trails we were on had hundreds of feet of elevation gain and loss, plus rocky and sometimes technical terrain. I was thinking of “walking” as a weakness. But “power hiking” is about shifting your mindset from “I walk when I’m exhausted” to “I walk to run further.”

“For me, it’s been about re-defining what ‘fit’ equals,” Brittany Charboneau, pro runner and running coach based in Denver, tells Runner’s World. “You can still be very fit, it’s just applied differently.”

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Talk to any trail runner, and they’ll tell you pace goes out the window the second you hit dirt and vert. For instance, Charboneau is very open about walking in races like the Leadville Trail Marathon, which she won this year.

“When we have people racing trails, we almost never give them split goals,” Jenni Nettik, Charboneau’s coach and the owner of Mercuria Running, tells Runner’s World. “It’s always effort-based goals.”

Think about effort on a scale of 1 to 10, or as easy, moderate, and hard based on your breath. Let’s say you’re going out for a moderate-effort trail run—that might look like a 15-minute pace as you walk uphill, breathing heavy, but you should be able to maintain that effort on the downhill by picking up the pace to 9-minute miles.

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Another way to gauge a trail run is with mental goals.

“Sometimes, my goal is just to make it to the top of a mountain feeling like I mentally crushed it,” says Charboneau. “On a recent hike in Telluride [Colorado], it started to get hard, and I started thinking, ‘I’m not going fast enough.’ But I pulled the effort back and slowed my breath down because my goal wasn’t about time, but about feeling amazing at the top.”

Sure, if you want to get faster, you have to run fast. But even power hiking on hilly terrain can help tap into some of the same strength-building effects of speed work on flat ground. And “stacking those workouts overtime gets you faster paces,” says Charboneau. “The key is you’re enjoying it the whole way, versus hating every second or feeling bad about yourself when you finish.”

Even if you’re just trying to enjoy yourself, don’t think of power hiking as going for a stroll. “It’s about moving forward with purpose,” says Nettik. “The faster you get your feet off the ground, the more quickly you’ll move.”

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A thick, soft sole protects you from anything harsh underfoot, but the shoe is still light so you can bomb down the trail.

When you’re power hiking, Nettik advises tapping into your glute muscles, since they are larger and more powerful. And Charboneau recommends channeling that posture you tap into during speed work.

“When I started to stay really tall and lead with my chest, it helped keep my lungs open so I could take bigger breaths as I moved uphill,” says Charboneau.

Your breath can also be a powerful tool in helping you move forward—especially at slower paces. There’s no arguing that going uphill takes more effort. “A lot of times people are like, ‘Oh, I can’t breathe,’ so they try to breathe in deeper. That can actually make you hyperventilate,” says Nettik. Instead of taking shallow inhales, overexaggerate your exhale to engage your core, force the air out of your lungs, and guarantee a deep (calming!) inhale.

Deployed correctly, power hiking can be a strategic tool smart trail runners use to maximize their efficiency.

“Power hiking shifts which muscles you’re using, which can give those that are fatigued a break. It’ll also drop your heart rate,” says Nettik. “If you’re trying to save a little bit of energy on a tougher part of the run, shift to a hike.”

The science backs her up: On inclines steeper than 15.8 degrees, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking rather than running, research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found. But there’s no one grade that works for everyone, says Nettik—it’s a combination of how steep the hill is and how aerobically fit you are. That’s because your biomechanics change when you switch from running to walking, according to research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

Depending on how fit you are, you may fare better pushing yourself to run or slowing down to a walk.

“I usually encourage people to challenge themselves to run a little bit past where they want to walk, because most people give up on themselves too soon,” says Nettik.

Instead of stopping my watch, now I focus on how far I can make it up a hill before I need to walk—excuse me, power hike. Sometimes it's still sooner than I'd prefer (got to love that Colorado elevation), but the more trails I run, the more often I make it further than I ever thought I’d be capable of.

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