Hill Running

During video analysis at our adult running vacations it’s very common to hear, “you would really benefit from doing some regular hill running”. Go ahead, cue the collective groan, I’ve heard it before – along with the ashamed look that says you know you should be running more hills 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 running, 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 summer. And tell you how that can set you up for success in your fall races.

Hill Running to Improve Aerobic Capacity

Hills provide a number of benefits, 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 running. So what is it that can sets hill running apart from other types of hard workouts?

Joe finishing a climb during our hill running phase of training.

One of the benefits is that while hill running is hard, 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 ZAP Endurance athletes. There are a variety of reasons for this. One is that we get in 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. Therefore the force of your body impacting the ground is higher. By reducing the speed we still get in the tempo workout without those higher impact forces.

Hill Running to Improve Running Form

In addition to reducing the impact during hard efforts, hills also improve running biomechanics. When we do video analysis at our adult running vacations we often recommend incorporating hills into a weekly routine to improve 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 running slowly. This isn’t an optical illusion. Your body is very adaptable to stress. When you ask more out of your body it usually responds by finding ways to become more efficient.

This adaptation 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 help 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. This is the same concept with hill running.

Running uphill forces you to land with your feet underneath your center of mass. This is something you should aim to do all the time while you’re running. And it is particularly important for people who tend to over-stride. Landing 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. If you are below 180 total foot strikes consider incorporating hill running to increase your cadence and make you more efficient.

Hill Running Implementation

There are a number of ways you can incorporate hills to reap the benefits I’ve discussed. The early stages of your training program where you are spending your time just building up easy base mileage is a great time to 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. The strides should be 10-30 seconds in length. 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 you can include hill running as part of other workouts. For example, 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 hill repeats from 1-3 minutes in length. 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.