I've been continuing to examine why hills are so hard for me. Yes, I expected a large degree of additional effort, but there's no way I'm as ill-conditioned as my recent hill runs seemed to indicate. I must be wasting lots of energy, rather than harnessing it for propulsion.
After several more runs, I've discovered one of the reasons: Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I've been slightly over-striding while going uphill. The point where my forefoot contacts the ground was slightly in front of my knee, due largely to the angle of the slope. This caused me to 'step up' rather than 'fall forward', making progress more difficult.
So I made a conscious effort to get my uphill contact point back under my knee. When I did so, I noticed two things: First, going uphill now feels very much like running-in-place, where the contact point is forced to be under the knee. This is a very familiar and comfortable feeling which serves as a good check on foot strike.
Second, I'm now able to run faster uphill (for the same effort) because the later strike means more of the propulsion effort comes at the end of the stride, where the leg is straighter and the muscles work with greater mechanical advantage: More forward progress with the same level of muscle recruitment
The more I run, the more I realize how important running-in-place is to the development of a comfortable running gait.
Running downhill is still an issue for me: The downward slope means my heel contacts the ground earlier, and I've developed a small amount of continuous mild lower back pain. I've tried pointing my toes to give my calves more time to absorb the impact, but it just caused a greater impact at the time of contact, which my back converts to pain. I've tried running downhill in a slight squat, but that is way too fatiguing.
Well, it turns out that pointing my toes caused my contact point to once again move in front of my knee, creating more stopping force and making the impact worse rather than better. So, again, I had to focus on keeping the point of impact under my knee.
But this shortened my stride which slowed me down, so I tried increasing my turnover rate to well over 200 bps. This does help, some, but is too new to feel comfortable. I plan to create some high-speed drills to try to make it feel more natural (fast running-in-place for downhill, plus some high-knee running-in-place for uphill).
I put it all together during today's 5K run, and I improved my 'hilly PR' by a surprising 90 seconds. Minor technique tweaks can immediately yield major efficiency and speed gains.
The moral of the story so far is quite simple: No matter what the terrain is doing, always keep the point of contact under the knee, so it feels like running-in-place!