Hill Training

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Endurance

At our adult running camp a few weeks ago we were doing our video analysis with the group and I said for the countless time this summer, “you would really benefit from doing some regular work on hills”. So this month I’d like to talk to you about hills – when, how, and why to use them. Go ahead, cue the collective groan, I’ve heard it before – along with the ashamed look that says you know you should be doing hill training but aren’t. Okay, now with that out of the way let me tell you why hills are important and how they can help take you to the next level in your running. Everyone knows they should be doing hill training, but do you really know why? Most people don’t, they just know they should, but not knowing the reason makes the follow through less likely. Well no more excuses, I’m going to lay it out here and get you motivated to tackle some hills this fall!

Hill Training to Improve Aerobic Capacity

There a number of benefits hills provide, the most obvious being that they’re hard; they stress our lungs and cardiovascular system, providing a great stimulus for improving fitness. But there are a number of ways you can improve fitness that don’t include hill training. So what is it that can sets hill training apart from other types of hard workouts? One of the benefits is that while it provides a great anaerobic threshold stimulus uphill running isn’t all that stressful on your legs. It may feel very stressful on your legs while you’re running, but the impact stress is a fraction of what it is with a similar effort on a flat surface.

We are fortunate enough where we live to be able to run several miles continuously uphill. Yes, that’s right, I said fortunate. We frequently do uphill tempo runs with our athletes. There are a variety of reasons for this; one is that we are able to get in all the aerobic benefits of a tempo run without the impact stress of achieving the same effort on a flat surface. Your body moves at a higher rate of speed on flat surfaces which means ground reactionary forces are higher, and therefore the force of your body impacting the ground is higher. By reducing the speed running uphill we still get in the tempo workout without those higher impact forces.

Hill Training to Improve Running Form

In addition to reducing the impact during hard efforts, hills also improve running biomechanics. When we look at running form on video with our adult running camps we tell a lot of people that incorporating hills into their weekly routine will help improve their form. One of the ways running uphill improves your form is through increased muscle recruitment. You’ll notice if you watch someone running fast they often look much more efficient than they do when they’re running slowly. This isn’t an optical illusion. Your body is very adaptable to stress and when you ask more out of your body it usually responds by finding ways to become more efficient. This adaptability is amplified when running uphill. With the added stress of running uphill your body increases muscle recruitment which improves your efficiency. Doing some hill running a couple of times a week will make that muscle recruitment pattern your normal recruitment pattern, even on flat surfaces. Think of hills as nature’s weight room for distance runners. The idea behind doing leg weights is to improve efficiency in much the same way we aim to with hill training.

Running uphill forces you to land with your feet underneath your center of mass, which is something you should aim to do all the time while you’re running. This is particularly important for people who tend to overstride. By forcing you to land with your feet underneath your center of mass rather than way out in front you also increase your repetition of foot strike. You should be targeting right around 180 foot strikes per minute. Next time you run, take a foot strike count and if you are below 180 total foot strikes then doing some more hill work will help you increase your cadence and make you more efficient.

Hill Training Implementation

There are a number of ways you can incorporate hills to reap the benefits I’ve discussed. In the early stages of your training program where you are spending your time just building up easy base mileage you can still improve efficiency with hills. In addition to finding a hilly run a couple of times a week, finish 2-3 runs a week with 4-10 uphill strides from 10-30 seconds in length. You should take plenty of recovery between them, these aren’t intended to be strenuous; they are simply for improving form and efficiency. As you progress in your training and start doing some longer fartlek and tempo work you can include hilly fartlek runs, the uphill tempos I mentioned, or even longer hill repeats with a jog recovery. As you get closer to your race and your workouts become more specific to the race you’re getting ready for include some shorter, faster hill repeats. While hills serve an important purpose in training it is also important to do some running that is specific to your race as you get closer to race day. If you are targeting a flat 5k then you need to include some work on flat surfaces too.

Include some of these tips in your weekly routine and the next time someone says hill work you won’t be part of the collective groan.