Posted on April 1, 2015 · Posted in Blog, General, Personal

Many runners view hills with enormous suspicion. They question the point of running up them and see them merely as a barrier to running faster and stronger. The problem is, that is simply wrong. Hills are a significant training tool and will help you maximise your performance in many ways. So don’t ignore them, run up them.

Why hills are good for you

Just walking up a hill is hard work, so the notion of running one is admittedly not hugely attractive at first. But when you consider the benefits of hill running, and remember that most elite Kenyan athletes run up and down hills every day of their lives, you learn to love everything from a gentle slope to a mountain.

The most important aspect of hill training is that it improves your leg muscle strength. When you need to run faster in a race to break your PB, when that time comes to inject some pace and use your leg strength, hill training will give you that capability. The fight with gravity provides a type of resistance training that will push your cardiovascular capacity to the limit.

Hill running rhythm

To run uphill effectively you need to hit the right rhythm. If you go too quickly you will most likely crash and burn within 100 metres, but if you run too slowly, you’ll end up walking. So a regular bouncing stride that drives you upwards is ideal for a slope and this repeated motion will quicken your stride on the flat and expand your stride length. You burn more calories when you do this and you give all of you major muscle groups the same kind of workout.

The muscles in your ankles, knees, hips and feet all have to work in a co-ordinated fashion to force you up the hill and so they all receive the same kind of workout. Doing muscle-strengthening exercises in the gym might work for some of these muscle groups, but those exercises tend to focus on areas in isolation and lack the benefit of the joined up approach that hills provide. It is also a tremendous way of toning the lower half of your body, because you will have terrific glutes, calves and quads as a result.

Evidence that hill running can improve performance

A huge amount of research on hill running has been conducted by Dr Bengt Saltin at the University of Copenhagen. He discovered that runners who regularly ran up hills improved their running economy (the amount of oxygen you use to run fast) by as much as 3 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but it equates to 6 minutes off a marathon PB and 2 minutes off a 10k best. His research found that runners who incorporated tough hill sessions into their training had higher levels of aerobic enzymes in their quadriceps muscles, which are chemicals that allow your body to function at a higher intensity for longer. Strong quads facilitate a higher leg lift, greater turnover and a faster overall speed and all of this had come from hill running.

Hill running technique

The secret to effective hill running is to hit the slope at the same effort as you were expending on the flat. That isn’t the same pace, but it is the same rhythm. How do you do that? The answer lies in thinking about your technique and focusing on the impact of gravity. As you hit the slope, the first thing you need to do is shorten your stride. You are looking for a co-ordinated turnover of the feet that is a sustained rhythm. The target is to maintain that kind of pace on the way up and on the way down. Speed isn’t the ambition, you are looking for rhythm and momentum and to achieve it with a light, bouncy stride.

Your arms will need to help generate the required momentum to power you up the slope. Pump them higher and more vigorously, like a sprinter, but make sure that pumping action is backwards and forwards and not across your body (otherwise you will rotate your torso and waste vital energy that you will need elsewhere, as well as increasing your injury risk). Lift your knees higher than you would on the flat and lean forward slightly but keep a straight spine. Your stride pattern needs to be shorter and almost metronomic to propel you onwards and upwards with a co-ordinated rhythm.

A lot of runners make the mistake of looking down at the ground, but you need to look where you’re going. If you look down you will inevitably lean too far forward. And make sure that you deep breath, ideally from the belly, because you will need to get as much oxygen into your body as possible. When you get to the top, slow to a gentle jog to give your body a chance to calm down and recover, especially your heart, which will have been working overtime.

Running downhill

On the way down you are looking to maintain the same stride pattern. There is no need to increase speed, you need to concentrate on your technique. Don’t lean back or you risk a fall or injury. Lean forwards slightly and try to position your hips underneath you. The temptation is always to take bigger strides to try to slow down. But by doing that your joints will take a huge pounding and injury is a real danger.

Introducing hill running into your training

Do not attack a steep hill without some kind of gentle introduction to hill running. You run an increased risk of injury if you launch yourself at a 1:10 gradient without any kind of practice. Aggressive hill running is something that comes with time and practice. It is not something that you can pluck out of thin air on the first attempt.

-worldrunning.comNatural memory enhancer