Hill Training - What is it and why do it?
Running short intervals on a hill, or running across hilly terrain and adding in efforts. Hills provide resistance – working on hills is like going to an outdoor gym.
Hill training increases your aerobic capacity (you'll need to use less oxygen at longer distances) and improves your running economy (you use less oxygen to run faster) - and as it's high intensity, it's a great calorie burner. It builds strength in your glutes, quads and calf muscles, so is fantastic for toning and sculpting your bottom half.
Hill work increases your ankle flexion, meaning you ‘pop’ off the ground quickly when you run. Hills will also improve your stride length (from uphill running) and your stride frequency (from downhill running).
Hill training provides a great improvement for a relatively short amount of time.
Yes I know training on hills can be a bit daunting for many runners and is probably the least favoured type of training and therefore often missed out of the training cycle. But here are just a few reasons why hills should be a major part of your training and in my opinion undertaken instead of the speed track session if you had to choose:-
- Hills are a guaranteed training tool for increasing your speed, improving your running form and economy, and building your endurance.
- Improved turnover of feet, which means faster cadence (key for running faster).
- Better neuromuscular fitness, which improves your running economy across all distances
- Builds power and strength in the lower body
- Uses a variety of muscles, which teaches you to activate those muscles while running on any terrain (glute activation is important for powerful running)
- Decreased risk of injury (especially hamstring injury) compared to fast running on flat ground
- Hills are speedwork in disguise – a cliche amongst running coaches but true!
- Hills build your endurance and increase your fatigue resistance
- You feel strong and that confidence permeates to other areas of your life and running
- During the base phase, in lieu of speed work: hills place less stress on the body than speed work, so you can focus on building your mileage while maintaining some speed and power.
- When you’re training for hilly race: specificity should be the number one priority in planning your workouts.
- When you want to lose weight: running hills burns more calories than flat ground running.
- When you’re in a plateau: running hills will help you get faster, even when you’re already doing speed work.
- Hill sprints offer numerous benefits to runners: serious metabolism-boosting afterburn, improved running form, better resistance to fatigue, increased stroke volume (more blood pumped to the muscles), stronger lower body muscles, and bursts of speed development without the wear and tear of traditional speed work.
- Plus, hill sprints give distance runners the exhilaration of running at top effort – without the risk of injury since uphill running places less force and stress on the joints and muscles than flat or downhill running.
- Hill sprints are an ancillary workout, similar to strides or form drills. Therefore you can include them on easy days and see significant benefits in your training without the accumulation of too much fatigue or wear on the body. However, if you are training for very hilly race, you will need to do additional hill running workouts beyond hill sprints to train your body to run hills well.
- Yes hills present a challenge to every runner, but that’s why hill running workouts will improve your running: you need to add a stressor to see physiological adaptations. Stressors are inherently challenging, whether you are increasing your mileage, running faster, or lifting heavier weights.
There are 3 forms of hill training you should undertake:-
- Hill sprints: 20 seconds burst of speed up a 10% hill repeat 6 to 12 times jog back recovery
- Hill repeats: 30, 40 or 60 seconds running hard up a 10% hill 6 to 12 times jog back recovery
- Long Hill Runs; Hills taking 3 minutes or more to climb – incorporate into a long run
Short, Explosive Sprints
The idea is to run for 10-20 seconds up a steep hill (7-10% grade) at maximum effort. They’re called explosive hill sprints because you power up the hill like a sprinter coming out of the blocks. After each repeat, you take a full (2-3 minute) rest so that you’re fully recovered before starting again.
These types of hill sprints are designed to activate and improve the function of the neuromuscular system and increase maximal stroke volume in the heart.
The neuromuscular system is the communication vehicle between your brain and your muscles. A boost of “fitness” to the neuromuscular system allows your brain to increase the speed at which it sends signals to the muscles and, more importantly, allows your body to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibres and fire them more forcefully.
Enhancing maximal stroke volume increases the amount of blood your heart can pump with each stroke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and makes the heart more efficient.
As a reminder, these types of hill sprints are not a fitness-building workout, but more an ancillary training component, much like strides and form drills. Likewise, the physiological benefits won’t make you a better hill runner, even though they can help you improve as an overall runner.
Long Hill Repeats
Long hill repeats are the traditional type of hill workouts many runners want to do when they feel they need to improve their hill running skills. A good example of this type of workout is 10 x 90 second hill repeats at a hard effort with a walk or jog back down the hill for recovery.
These types of hill workouts are fantastic for improving VO2max and increasing muscle strength. In fact, long hill repeats are almost a form of strength training. As a runner, you can do squats, lunges, and hamstring curls until your muscles burn, but nothing compares exactly to running. The forceful contractions caused by the lifting of the hips, glutes and quads when you’re running up the hill utilizes the same principle mechanics as many plyometrics exercises. Also, because these long hill repeats are often very intense and last anywhere from 30-90 seconds, they are a great VO2 max workout.
Unfortunately, doing lots of hill repeats will not help you run faster over a hilly course. During a race, many of the hills you encounter will be long and gradual, not steep and short. Furthermore, the pace at which you ascend the hill will be conservative, not an all out sprint. Therefore, the specific muscles you are working and the demands you are placing on your body will be drastically different between a hill repeat workout and race.
This doesn’t mean that long hill repeats are useless. You can build general running strength and fitness when you integrate them into your training plan. I suggest sprinkling them into your training schedule in place of a VO2 max workout to help build muscle strength and enjoy a nice change of pace.
If you’re looking to improve your ability to tackle hills on race day, then incorporating rolling hills into your threshold and long runs is the best solution. This is how most elite training groups handle races contested over difficult courses. Incorporating rolling hills into your runs provides your muscles and physiological systems the specific stimulus that it will face on race day — improving form over longer and more gradual hills and maintaining pace up and over the hill.
Furthermore, throwing some hills into your road runs teaches you how to pace yourself up and over hills so you can keep the effort within your target pace range during the race. Many runners attack hills too hard during a race, and as a consequence they go anaerobic and have to slow down considerably once the hill is over. The appropriate way to approach hills during a race is to maintain the same effort up and down, which will even out the pace over the long run. By practicing this tactic in training, you can become an expert at it on race day and save yourself from exerting too much energy.
Finally, rolling hills are a great way to prepare for a hilly race because they don’t require a change to your normal training routine. You can still execute all the threshold and long runs you need, but by changing your route to include a few hills, you’ll be specifically preparing yourself to handle the hills on race day.
When you’re putting together your training plan to prepare for a hilly race course, consider adding rolling hills to your long runs and threshold workouts to prepare for the specific demands you’ll face on race day.
As with all harder running workouts including fartleks and tempo runs, warm up with 5-20 minutes (depending on your mileage) of easy running followed by dynamic stretches and drills such as high knees, butt kicks, and skips. Then, run 6-8 x 1 minute hard uphill (your breathing should be laboured, but not so hard that you crash and burn after a few repeats) and recover with a slow jog back down (1-2 minutes). Cool down with 5-20 minutes of easy running, foam roll, refuel, and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.
Hill technique tips
- Don't lean too far forwards, keep looking to the top and keep yourself upright. If you look down, you'll lean into the hill, which is less efficient.
- Make your stride shorter and use a high knee drive.
- Keep your elbows close to your body.
- Push off the back foot - think antelope, not elephant. And run on the balls of your feet.
- Keep on running when you reach the top - only relax when you’re over the top.
- Relax - unclench your fists, let your arms go loose and just let it happen. Don't put on the brakes - but don't sprint, either.
- Your stride length increases as you run downhill, but if you're running down lots of hills, conserve the strength in your quadriceps by shortening your stride.
- Running down hills works on your leg turnover, which is key to fast running during races. Your maximal stride rate is controlled by your neuromuscular system, and quick leg turnover is best achieved through practice. Downhill training teaches your nervous system to let you run fast.