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Your Inner Unicyclist on Hills

In a previous post, Your Inner Unicyclist, the concept of running or walking cooperating with gravity was compared to what a unicyclist, or a young child, does instinctively. When a unicyclist wants to move forward, they lean first and then pedal just enough to keep up with their forward momentum and stay balanced.

But how does this change on hills? or does it?
To find balance a unicyclist can adjust position (lean) and rpm (cadence) In general, a unicycle’s gear is fixed. Your Inner Unicyclist can adjust position (lean), cadence and stride length (gear).


Let’s look at an uphill first. What would a unicyclist do to maintain at least some momentum up a hill? To keep gravity working a unicyclist stays (leaned) into the hill. Given they are pedaling *up* a hill, a shorter gear is preferable to reduce effort. The steeper the hill, the shorter the gear. Cadence may also slow a bit on a very steep hill since it is harder to pedal.

In the images above, notice that the ChiRunning/ChiWalking/unicyclist position and motion changes as the forces of nature change going uphill.


What would a unicyclist do to maintain balance on a downhill? Since the hill is providing gravity it is possible to lean less – and allow the hill to provide some part of the “lean”. Given they are pedaling down a hill, a bigger gear or longer stride length to the rear is preferable to reduce effort keeping up with the hill. If the hill is so steep they cannot lean and stay balanced, they come up vertical allowing the hill to provide all the “lean”. Then they pedal quickly enough with a small gear to stay vertical and balanced.

In the images above, notice that the ChiRunning/ChiWalking/unicyclist position and motion changes as the forces of nature change going downhill.

Overall the concept is to reduce effort going uphill and reduce impact going downhill. Aside from adjusting lean, there is more to each of the four possible hill technique scenarios: uphill, steep uphill, downhill, steep downhill. There are also clear transition points between a gradual hill and a steep hill. See Chapter 7 in the ChiRunning Book, or Chapter 8 in the ChiWalking Book for more details on hill technique.


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David Stretanski is a holistic health, fitness and wellness coach – and Certified ChiRunning®/ChiWalking® Instructor.  For more information on David, please see his About MeContact page or his website at

ChiRunning® and ChiWalking® are registered trademarks of ChiLiving, Inc.


Posted on Wednesday, Nov. 2nd 2011 3:52 PM | by echifitness | in All, ChiRunning, ChiWalking | 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “Your Inner Unicyclist on Hills”

  1. Donna Says:

    Thanks for this wonderfully helpful post! I live on a hill and I don’t like to drive somewhere to go running, so nearly all my runs start and end going uphill or downhill. I am familiar with the unicycle concept because I saw a video of Danny Dreyer demonstrating it to a group of students. I have attempted to use it throughout my runs, but I have struggled to incorporate it on hills.

    The biggest ah-ha that I took away from this post is how to lean on the downhill. I always have leaned forward on downhills with a longer stride out the back. But if I was on a unicycle, I would be tumbling over on my face!

    I look forward to incorporating these images into my next run and I have signed up for your blog, so I look forward to your future posts, as well.

    Thank you!

  2. echifitness Says:

    Thank you for your comment. Great to hear of your ah-ha moment.

    As with any terrain, flat or uphill or downhill, you can only lean as much as you can stay relaxed and balanced. It is possible to stay leaned forward on a gradual downhill. In general your lean is less downhill since the hill itself provides some portion of the overall lean. It is also possible (and advisable) to be as fluid as possible on a gradual downhill letting your stride extend behind you. Again the goal is relaxation and balance; and everyone will perceive each hill differently to achieve those goals.

    On a steep hill where it is not possible to stay forward, then you might consider a change to a more vertical/high cadence technique as described in the book/resources.

    Have fun!

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