What the HILL? A look at the benefits of hill training for runners.

Hill workouts for runners can take many forms and the benefits can vary a little depending on the type of race and training stimulus the runner and/or coach is trying to achieve. Running hills include many variables such as; length, intensity, repetitions, time, recovery, and grade. Any of these combinations slightly vary the benefits gained. There are some commonalities to the benefits of hill training.

Hill workouts should be a part of all runner’s training. From short sprints to ultra-marathon, and everything in between. Every runner can gain strength and mechanical training from running hill reps.

Hill reps help improve a runner’s form simply because it is more difficult to run hill reps with poor technique. Running uphill will naturally push a runner to run on the front of their foot and give a slight lean forward. Most runners will naturally have a shorter stride moving uphill, which will also increase cadence. Practicing hill reps can bring similar mechanical advantages as strides by helping the runner improve their running form.

Hill reps are also beneficial to all runners by increasing the power needed to push off the ground. It can be similar to the value of strides with added strength training. You are fighting gravity and the grade in which the hill you chose. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to push and maintain speed up the hill.

Hill reps, when done correctly, can actually be slightly easier on the body compared to running a quality (or hard) workout session on flat terrain. This is because you are unable to reach as high of speeds and in return, your feet will not hit the ground with such force. Allowing the workout to be slightly easier on your muscles and connective tissues.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you have ever done downhill training you may have felt the workout itself being faster due to the help of gravity but afterward more tightness or soreness. In the same way that an uphill workout is easier on the body, downhill workouts can increase the impact force on those muscles and connective tissues.

Applying this to racing.

If you are going to run any race, hill workouts have their benefits as mentioned above. If you are going to run a race with elevation changes or even a net gain, then it is probably more crucial that you incorporate these workouts more regularly. This will not only make you more efficient at running the hill but also gives you a mental advantage as well.

Many runners like to find courses that are net downhill. The entire Revel Race series seems to target a demographic of runners wanting to chase Boston qualifiers or new PRs by creating extreme net downhill courses. Many runners who have done this, however, have found their legs extremely fatigued and beaten up before the end of the race, despite the net loss in elevation. This is due to the compounding impact force that running downhill for that long can have on one’s leg. If you are planning to run this type of course, then you need to train for it appropriately to truly gain the advantage you are seeking.

How to run hills.

If you are running uphill, you should lean forward slightly and shorten your stride. As mentioned above this will increase your cadence. As your power up the hill pump your arms to help drive your knees up. I like to imagine that a rope is tied around my midsection and I feel a person helping me to the top. Weirdly enough, this mental image makes the effort seem a touch easier and I keep my eye focused on the top of the hill.

If you are running down hill, you will find that some of the things you might naturally want to do can be counter productive. As runners start to feel the pull of gravity down a hill, many runners will lean back a bit. If you can keep a slight learn forward you will run down the hill with less effort. Letting the hill do more of the work for you. As you run, be very mindful of how your foot hits the ground. Some runners will take large steps, with a more prominent heal strike. This causes the surface area that hits the ground to be significantly smaller and the impact force greater on certain joints. Landing a bit softer and rolling into the step more will help spread out those forces and protect the legs longer.

Possible hill workouts.

Short Hill Reps (Less than 15 seconds)-Typically are done on a more steep hill. Shorter hill reps should be done at higher speeds which requires power and strength to perform. Running them at slower or moderate speeds will not yield the desired benefits. When performing shorter hill reps, generally you want to take a full recovery between each rep so that each additional hill rep is no more difficult than the first. This ensures you are building on the power you seek to gain from these hill reps. One way to incorporate short hill reps into your training is to complete them on an easy run day similar to strides. Complete 8x 10-second hill reps, pushing hard to the top of the hill. Focus on good running mechanics and walk down taking a full recovery between each. When done correctly and kept at paces that are anaerobic, no blood lactate is produced. This allows you to complete them on a non-workout day without negatively impacting subsequent workouts.

Moderate to long hill reps can be performed similarly to a workout or quality training session. Duration would be 15-60 seconds with the recovery depending on the energy system you are loading, similar to the effect as extended or shortened rest would impact a track workout.

If you are training for an ultra-marathon or a course you know will have a lot of elevation changes, it can be advantageous to find an area to run that has similar elevation changes. One example might be to find a mile loop that is more hilly to complete your mile repeats at. Adjusting your target time for the elevation changes. Another example, I have had my high school XC girls doing 1 km reps with the first 400 meters up a gradual incline to mimic the race we had coming up.

You can also complete downhill workouts to help your body adjust to a downhill course. Allowing those muscles and connective tissue that will be taking a greater amount of force to become ready for race day. One favorite of mine is downhill 800s, jogging easily back to the top as recovery. This was one that I first completed in a local group run. I thought the workouts sounded easy enough. For the first reps, I took off entirely too fast, trashing my legs. Over time, I got better at these workouts and found that they helped me tremendously tolerate the net downhill in races. I didn’t feel nearly as torn up as I had in previous races with similar elevation loss.

For many runners, hill workouts can be a bad word, or at least not a favorite workout to complete. They often aren’t as glamorous as flat workouts because the rep times are not as flashy. The value of these workouts, however, is worth the effort. All hills provide neuromuscular benefits, as long as you are practicing good form throughout. Along with cardivascular benefits.

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Published by RunCanvas

Hi I am Janell! Avid runner and coach with 14 years of experience helping runners reach their goals. Wondering if working with a running coach is the right choice for you? Run coaching is available for ALL levels and paces. If you run, you are a runner. Hiring a running coach will help you to become stronger and more resilient – both physically and mentally.

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