Hills are simply the best way to build running strength. Running up those inclines forces your muscles to work harder with each step; and as you grow stronger, your stride becomes more efficient and your speed improves. ‘I’m a great believer in the benefits of hill workouts,’ say UK elite athlete and RW columnist Jo Pavey. ‘Speed requires good running technique and to run uphill effectively you must use your muscles in a very coordinated way. Speed also requires a quick cadence, which will be encouraged by hill running.’
Why is running uphill good for runners?
Research bears this out. A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance had a group of runners perform six weeks of high-intensity uphill running intervals; not only did their running economy improve, but also they were, on average, two per cent faster in 5K time-trial performances.
But while ascents require more effort from your heart and lungs, downhill running poses its own challenges – and rewards. Descending feels easy aerobically, but each step triggers muscle-damaging eccentric contractions in the quads and lower legs. These also occur on level ground, but on declines the load increases. This creates more micro-tears, which stimulates muscle growth but could leave you sore – which is why the Boston Marathon route, with its four-mile downhill opening stretch, is harder than it seems. Practising downhill running helps prepare your body for this.
The best hill workouts for runners:
As shown in the workouts here, varying the steepness and length of hill repeats – from short, steep sprints to longer, rolling hill runs – hits all the physiological bases – speed, strength, efficiency and endurance. Hitting the hills every one or two weeks will make you a fitter, stronger runner.
1. Hills start
Why: An introduction to hill training for new runners.
How: Jog for 10 minutes to warm up, then walk for two minutes. From the bottom of a gentle incline, run up for five seconds, then walk back to the starting point. Run up again for seven seconds, then walk down. Run for 10 seconds, walk down. Shorten your stride and keep your feet low to the ground on the ascents. Feeling strong? Repeat the sequence. Do the workout every seven to 14 days.
2. Uphill effort
Why: Research has found that most runners try to run too fast uphill. It’s best to maintain an even effort rather than try to sustain your flat pace. This workout will help you to lock in to a sustainable pace.
How: Find an ascent that takes 10 mins or longer to cover. Mimic the effort you'd expend on a flat run, no matter how slow it feels. Listen to your breathing: if it gets noticeably heavier, ease up. Or use a heart-rate monitor to moderate your effort level.
3. Summit attack
Why: Helps you regain your flat-ground pace more quickly as you near the crest of a hill.
How: Use long strides as a cue to open up your stride and accelerate as you approach the top of a hill. To practice this transition, especially when you’re tired, find a hill that takes about 45 seconds to climb. Run hard to the top, then lengthen your stride and accelerate for 15 seconds to ingrain the quick transition. Jog down for recovery. Repeat six to 10 times.
4. Downhill strides
Why: Good form is vital if you want gravity to be your friend. Practising fast cadence on downhills helps you avoid the tendency to brake because you’re not used to the pounding.
How: After a run, do four to six relaxed 100m strides down a gentle slope; progress over time to a steeper decline. Keep your arms wide and low for balance, shorten your stride and focus on quick steps. If your breathing gets quieter you can push a little harder.
5. Downhill repeats
Why: Practising downhills prepares your body to handle the eccentric muscle contractions it demands from the quads, improving your performance on hilly courses.
How: Find a grassy hill about 100m long, with an incline of two to three per cent (rises two to three metres over 100m). After a 10-min warm-up, run up at an easy pace, run down at a comfortably hard pace. Repeat two to four times. Each week, add a repeat or two, or find a slightly steeper hill.
6. Downhill loops
Why: This workout adds focus to your preparation for a hilly race.
How: Find a hilly loop that is about 1.5 miles long. After a 10-minute warm-up, run the loop with moderate effort on the uphills and a comfortably hard effort (equal to about your goal race pace) on the downhills. Rest for two minutes, then repeat the loop two to four times. Each week or two you can progress by adding a loop, picking up the pace or reducing your rest time between the efforts.
7. Speed hills
Why: Recommended by Jo Pavey, this session is great for building speed, as it develops leg strength and power in a dynamic way.
How: Find a hill that takes three minutes or longer to run up. Do 5 x 1-min uphill reps, with a jog-down recovery between each. Rest for three mins. Then do 5 x 45-sec uphill reps, with jog-down recovery. Rest for three mins. Do 3 x 30-sec uphill reps, with jog-down recovery. Rest for three mins. Finally, run up the hill for 3 mins, accelerating for the last 30 secs.
8. Short hill sprints
Why: Increases leg strength, improves form and builds speed. Best suited to runners with some experience.
How: After a good warm-up, explode up a steep hill for eight to 12 seconds. ‘Give it 100 per cent,’ says coach Jason Fitzgerald. Give yourself one to two minutes to walk down and catch your breath. ‘Don’t cut your recovery time short,’ he says. Do hill sprints once a week and work your way up to eight reps. ‘This is like weightlifting for runners,’ says Fitzgerald.
9. Killer hills
Why: Get stronger by climbing fast. ‘This is a very good transitional workout between late-winter base mileage and late-spring speedwork,’ says 2:32 US marathoner Jeannette Faber.
How: After a 10-15- minute warm-up incorporating six 100m strides, do eight to 12 repeats of a gradual hill. Progress from a moderate effort lasting 1:45-1:50 to a hard effort of 1:30-1:35. Between each repeat, jog down the hill for 2:30-3:30. Finally, warm down for 10-15 minutes.
10. Up and downward
Why: This one will toughen you up and prepare you for a hilly race. It also teaches you to race hard on uphills and downhills.
How: Run up a moderate incline in 2:05, then run down in 1:55 (this pace should feel akin to a 10K to half-marathon effort in both directions). Recover for two minutes. Repeat five times. Jog to a steeper hill. Run up in 1:05, then down in 55 seconds (should feel like a 5K to 10K effort). Recover for one minute. Repeat five times.
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