Do your legs need some extra strength? Are your runs on the flat just a little dull? Then welcome some hills in to your life!
We’ve all felt it. Chipping along comfortably on a nice flat run, you suddenly look up and are greeted by the runners’ nemesis: a hill. You hit the incline but, before you know it, your legs feel like jelly, your stride length shortens to a mere patter, your head is down and your heart rate is up through the roof. No doubt about it, hills are hard. But they’re also the ultimate training ground. And running them regularly will improve your form, strength and stamina.
The benefits of hill training
Hitting the hills improves your cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory fitness. In other words, it makes your heart more powerful, your breathing rate more controlled, and improves the transport of oxygen around your body. Running hills develops leg strength, stamina, running economy and power. Master hills and you also develop a sense for controlling discomfort and build a mental tenacity perfect for racing. As well as developing strength endurance, hills can also help with building better running technique. They enhance knee lift, develop co-ordination and improve the technique to drive legs and arms effectively. Uphill running develops leg strength and explosive power, but it’s not just about the ups – the downs are just as useful The application of braking forces and eccentric muscle action necessary for downhill running improves control, balance and stability.
How to do it
- Don’t run hills that are too steep. Your muscles usually do not have the strength to optimise the work rate for very long and hence you cannot maintain a high heart rate for a sustained period. Instead, build up the gradient gradually. Start with a shallow hill and, as you improve, get steeper
- Drive your knees up, shorten your stride, lean into the hill as you power up it
- Over-striding can lead to massive muscle soreness and injury risk so take medium length strides on descending
- Foot-strike should be flat footed and natural when confidently descending on a hill. Heel strike if losing control or unsure of your footing
- Let gravity control your descent and so adjust stride rate
- Be confident. Lean forward a little. Lean back only if you need to slow down
- The steeper the hill, the smaller your stride
- For a shallower shorter hill, allow a longer stride but with short rhythmic ground contact time. Long ground contacts usually mean a long strain time on the connecting tissues – so cadence should be optimally short
- Don’t forget your arms. Use them for balance, drive and control. Pump them by your sides to develop power but keep them relaxed to stay controlled
5 hill training sessions
- Hill Repeats
The ‘gold standard’ of hill running. Hill repeats are structured workouts with hard efforts up the hill with the down used as a jog/walk recovery period before turning and hitting the hill again.
- i) Using a long grassy hill (not too steep) that takes about 90secs to run hard from bottom to top. Run hard from the bottom to the top. Turn at the top and jog back down to the bottom. Repeat the hill three to six times. Sustained hill runs are great for strength and stamina.
- ii) Using a shorter, steeper hill. Run fast up the hill for 30secs. Turn and jog back to the bottom. Take a further 60secs rest and then hit the hill again a further two times. Take a 5-minute break and repeat the set of 3x30secs hills a further two times. High-intensity hill reps are great for building strength, speed and power.
2. Off-road hilly fartlek
An off-road hilly fartlek is great for fitness and developing leg strength. Running off road on rolling terrain you’ve got everything you want for a natural performance boosting training ground. Off-road climbs and descents on a continuous hilly route mean you get a natural variation of intensity. As the trail climbs up, you have to shorten your stride, push up onto the balls of your feet, drive your knees and arms and lean into the hill in order to generate maximum forward and upward momentum. As you crest the climb and descend the other side, relax, focus on maintaining your balance by using your arms, and let gravity and your legs carry you down.
Getting off-road on hilly trails, scrambling along single track, climbing and descending develops more than just leg strength. It’s demanding on the large muscles required for changes of direction, pace, acceleration, endurance, power on the ascents and control on the descents, but it also focuses on the more subtle muscles required for stability, proprioception, and control.
Choose a varied and hilly off-road route for between 30-60secs. Run all the hills you hit hard and recover on the descents and the flat section. This is a continuous hill running workout that requires concentration and motivation but delivers awesome strength benefits.
- Up and overs
A great way to run hills isn’t to stop at the top and collapse but to fix your point of recovery slightly past the top of the hill. Run right over the top of the hill in training and you’ll do it in racing and put distance between you and those around you.
Find a hill that you can run up and over (up one side and down the other). It doesn’t matter if one side is steeper or longer than the other. Run eight hill repeats (four up and overs) but don’t stop once you reach the top of the hill. Instead, power right over the top and keep working for one third of the distance of the descent on the other side. Then relax and use the remaining part of the down section for recovery, before turning and ramping it up again over the top of the hill.
- No hills? No problem
Urban running on the flat can be great for hill training too. Instead of picking a run route that avoids steps, stairs or ramps, actively seek them out. Multi-storey car parks are great places to start. Progressively build the number of flights you can run up. Try running a flight and walking a flight and repeating until you can run more and walk less.
Find a monster set of stairs and run repeats up and down them. When you reach the top, turn and jog/walk back down before running hard to the top. You’ll soon feel the hill-like benefits!
- Hill Pyramid.
Extend your range by running a mixed-pace hill workout. Find a hill that takes you roughly 60secs to run up from bottom to top.
- Run 60secs hard up the hill. Turn at the top and recover on the down section
- Run 45secs hard up the hill. Turn at the top and recover on the down section
- Run 30secs hard up the hill. Turn at the top and recover on the down section
- Run 15 secs hard up the hill. Turn at the top and recover on the down section
As the duration of the uphill effort reduces, so the intensity of your running should increase. The 15-second effort is flatout! Take 5mins and repeat this descending hill pyramid set two more times.