Regular running uphill against the higher resistance of your bodyweight and gravity has been shown to improve running economy, promoting better breath control, cadence and stride length. Plus it has a positive effect on flexibility, muscle recruitment and activation, leg strength, plus power and lactic tolerance.
Even if you’re not planning on becoming a mountain goat any time soon, hill training is a must for better running.
Not all hills are equal
If you live in a flat area and are used to ticking along on the level then you’ll certainly notice a climb more than someone who is used to elevation changes. Yet while it may seem obvious that the more hills you run, the better you get at running them, there’s a big degree of specificity. Not all hills are equal, and both the type of hill as well as how you run up or down it, will impact on the benefits realised.
So before you hit the hills, it pays to understand what you want to gain from your vertical efforts. And there are a few things to consider to help you determine how to approach your hill workouts.
First of all, how steep is it? Too steep and you’ll be unable to effectively hold your technique and form to gain any benefits from the workout.
Secondly, how long is it – either in terms of distance or time taken to run? Very short (less than 60 seconds), steep rises are a very different challenge to longer (two minutes plus), shallower hills. If it’s power, responsiveness, form and speed you’re seeking then shorter, steeper inclines are best. If you’re after speed endurance, improved running economy and strength, then longer, shallower hill efforts work better.
Also you need to think about your approach to running a hill. While they can be great for developing running form and posture, when run badly they can also have a negative impact. Typically, when a runner hits a hill their head drops, stride lengthens, knees and hips lower, pace slows, and arms overwork ineffectively.
Appropriate technique for hill running depends on the type of hill session you’re completing and your goals for doing so.
Short, sharp hill technique
If it’s power and high intensity you’re after (for example, to improve your middle distance or 5K performance), then sharper hills – with a steeper gradient that are shorter in duration – should be approached with enthusiasm. Things to bear in mind when tackling such hills include:
• Look up the slope. Keep your chin up, not your head down.
• Use your arms to vigorously drive by your sides.
• Keep your torso front facing.
• Lift onto your mid or forefoot and really use your calf and glutes to extend your leg fully behind you when pushing off the ground. This will help keep your stride long.
• Drive your knees powerfully forward from the hips. Try not to lean too much into the hill as this shortens your range of motion and can hamper the recruitment of your hip flexors to promote full knee lift and drive.
Longer, steady hill technique
The technique for effectively running longer hills is slightly different. You don’t want to power up the hill, rather you want to develop efficiency, control and smoothness. This stamina building on longer hills will help you stay on pace in longer races.
• Stay upright, look forward and up. Keep your chin up not your head down.
• Use your arms to smoothly drive by your sides not across your body.
• Shorten your stride and quicken your cadence. Take smaller steps. Avoid over-striding.
• Try and maintain an even effort up the hill.
• Relax your upper body.
• There is no need to drive your knee and hip as vigorously as for short, high-intensity hills. Focus on a smooth draw through of the hip and knee.
Three hill sessions to try
Session 1: 30-second power ups
Good for: Improving leg strength, speed and power.
What to do: Find a hill that will take you 30 seconds to run up, moving at a quick speed. Run hard from the bottom to the top, aiming to keep a consistently fast pace for each rep. Focus on your arm drive and power up the knee. Lock into propulsive arm action and a strong knee lift and hip drive.
Keep your stride open and long. Run right to and slightly over the crest of the hill before pausing (catching your breath!) and slowly jogging as recovery back to the start point and repeating a total of six times. Recovery on this high-intensity hill workout is important.
Progress it: Once you can do 6 x 30secs, aim to complete 2 x (4 x 30secs hills) and then, once you’ve got that nailed down, 2 x (5 x 30secs hills).
Session 2: Mixed stamina hills
Good for: Improving stamina, muscle strength and cardio endurance.
What to do: Find an undulating, hilly circuit mixed in gradient and duration. Run continuously round the hilly circuit for 30 minutes at sustained tempo effort (around 75% maximum). This is a sustained effort that can be demanding especially with a large number of hills in the circuit. Work all of the inclines up and over the top of the hill. The shorter the incline, the higher the intensity. Keep the momentum of the run going on the down sections of the route and on the flat sections.
Progress it: Aim to run the 30 minutes continually harder to cover more distance over the hills. Increase the duration of the continued effort to 40 or 50 minutes.
Session 3: Hill pyramid
Good for: This session can be tailored to bring about different training effects, for example the shorter the duration of the repetition, the harder the hill effort.
What to do: Find a hill with a medium gradient that is two minutes hard effort from bottom to top. Run hill repeats – hard to the top, turn and jog back down recovery and complete a descending set of efforts: 2mins – 90secs – 60secs – 45secs – 30secs – 15secs.
This session can be adjusted to suit your event and performance goals. For power and speed over shorter distances, run one set with a walk downhill recovery. For stamina, speed endurance and economy run two or three sets with a jog back down recovery.
Progress it: To liven the session up further, turn quickly at the top and run fast down the hill as recovery.