Hills are tough and challenging. They break your rhythm, make it harder to run a fast time and put an immense strain on your body.
But hills are good for you and they’re good for your running. Training on hills improves leg-muscle strength, quickens your stride, expands stride length, develops your cardiovascular system, enhances your running economy and can even protect your leg muscles against soreness. In short, hill running will make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner. What’s more, the benefits are relatively quick to take effect. In as little as six weeks of regular hill training you can expect a significant improvement in your muscle power and speed.
Why hill running works Runners today increasingly understand the importance of combining strength work with regular running. It strengthens tendons and ligaments, reduces the risk of injury and improves overall running form. The problem is that most runners tend to do the majority of their strength-specific work in the gym, through squats, leg extensions or arm and shoulder presses. While these exercises do increase strength and muscular power, they do it in isolation of your running, focusing on individual joints and small sets of muscles.
Hill sessions, in contrast, force the muscles in your hips, legs, ankles and feet to contract in a coordinated fashion while supporting your full body weight, just as they have to during normal running. In addition, on uphill sections your muscles contract more powerfully than usual because they are forced to overcome gravity to move you up the hill. The result is more power, which in turn leads to longer, faster running strides.
Science of hills
Much of the science supporting hill training was carried out in Sweden, initially at the Karolinska Institute. One major study carried out on marathon runners discovered that after 12 weeks of twice-weekly hill sessions, the athletes’ running economy had improved by three per cent. Although the subjects were trained runners, that improvement would still have helped them clip as much as two minutes off a 10-mile time or six minutes off a marathon.
Other research, carried out by Dr Bengt Saltin, discovered that runners who trained on hills have much higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes – the chemicals which allow your muscles to function at high intensity for long periods without fatigue – in their quadriceps muscles than those who did all their running on flat terrain. Heightened aerobic power in your quads gives you improved knee lift while running and also accelerates each leg forward more quickly as you run, which improves your speed.
Those who run on hills have also been shown to be less likely to lose fitness when they take time off from training. And many scientists believe that hill training can improve the elasticity of muscles, tendons and ligaments, allowing these tissues to carry out more work with less effort and fatigue.
It is the moment all runners dread. You turn the corner and right in front of you is a big, imposing hill. But don’t wince, focus. Shift gears both mentally and physically and prepare to attack the hill; don’t let it attack you. Running hills well is all about rhythm; if you let the hill break up your rhythm you will slow dramatically. But if you make the proper adjustments and maintain your cadence you’ll make molehills out of the mountains.
Here’s how: As you start uphill, shorten your stride. Don’t try to maintain the pace you were running on the flat. You are aiming for equal effort going up as well as down, not equal pace. Trying to maintain the pace you were running on the flat will leave you exhausted later in the race or session. Take ‘baby steps’ if necessary and try to keep the same turnover rhythm that you had on the flat ground. Your posture should be upright – don’t lean forward or back – your head, shoulders and back should form a straight line over the feet. Keep your feet low to the ground.
If your breathing begins to quicken it means that you’re either going too fast, over-striding or bounding too far off the ground as you run. Use a light, ankle-flicking push-off with each step, not an explosive motion, which will waste energy. If the hill is long or the gradient increases, keep shortening your stride to maintain a smooth and efficient breathing pattern. If the gradient decreases, extend your stride again. Try to maintain the same steady effort and breathing throughout.
In a race, or when you’re training on a undulating course, run through the top of the hill. Don’t crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back on your effort. Accelerate gradually into the downhill.
Most runners make one or two obvious mistakes when running downhill. They either sprint, which causes severe muscle soreness later on, or they’re so hesitant to surrender to gravity that they’re constantly braking, which fatigues the quadriceps muscles. The optimum pace is somewhere in between. Try not to let your feet slap on the ground when you are running downhill. Step lightly and don’t reach out with your feet. Slapping can be a sign of weak muscles in the shin area, in which case you need to strengthen them. To help your downhill technique, follow these simple tips:
Try to visualise gravity pulling you down the hill. Try to maintain an upright body posture, keeping your torso perpendicular to the horizontal. Keep your feet close to the ground for maximum control, and land lightly. As you increase your pace, emphasise quicker turnover rather than longer strides, though your strides can be slightly longer than normal. The key to efficient downhill running is to stay in control. When you start, keep your stride slightly shortened and let your turnover increase. When you feel in control, gradually lengthen your stride. If you start to run out of control when descending, shorten your stride until you feel you are back in control again.
Key Hill Sessions Running hills is like doing speedwork, in effort if not in outright speed. It is hard on your body, so don’t do more than one of the following sessions per week.
This is the most basic and yet one of the most beneficial of sessions. Warm up with a 10- to 15-minute run and then do a set of intervals on a steep slope – we will be doing a 550 metre route up Allendale Road. . On the uphill section try to run at an intensity that is slightly harder than your best 10K race pace (note it’s the intensity, not the pace). Walk a quarter of the way back down the hill, then jog back to the foot of the hill and, when recovered, run hard up the hill again. Start with four or five intervals and gradually build up. You can increase the severity of this session by increasing the number of intervals and/or reducing the recovery time.
Benefit boosts leg-muscle power, giving you quicker, longer strides.
Hill Problems Uphill:
Problem Cause Breathing too rapidly Over-striding or bounding too high
Tight leg muscles Over-striding
Tight or sore lower back Leaning too far forward
Tired or sore shoulders and arms Too much arm swing, or arms extended too far forward
Hill Problems Downhill:
Tight hamstrings or sore shins Over-striding
Arms flailing; loss of rhythm Going too fast
Sore lower back Leaning too far forward
Sore quadriceps muscles over-striding, forcing your quads to work too hard; or too much braking