Hill Training: Climb to Great Winter Fitness

It’s 2022 and that means it’s time to live up to your New Year’s Resolution to train hard and tackle more hills. What’s that, you don’t remember making a resolution to run more hills? It’s a good thing I’m here to refresh your memory! At our adult running vacations when we tell people they should do more hill training the response is usually a knowing sigh. Everyone knows that hill training is good for you. Still, so many of us still avoid it like the plague. The winter is a perfect time for hill training. Use it to boost your fitness and running economy heading into the spring.

Hill Training to Base Build

Unless you’re racing a full or half marathon, the winter can be a difficult time to know what you should be doing in your training. It’s the time of year to put in the base that sets the stage for spring and summer success. Hill training is a great way to mix up the monotony without sacrificing the purpose. Additionally, with hill training you will see benefits simply by doing a couple of hilly runs a week and mixing in some faster work. And what are those benefits?

Hill training is a big part of what we do with the On ZAP Endurance team.

Think of hill running as nature’s weight room for distance runners. Hill training builds strength that improves fitness and prepares the musculoskeletal system for harder workouts later in a training program. Running uphill increases the demand on your leg muscles compared to flat ground. This increased muscular recruitment improves overall running efficiency. Uphill running does this by improving recruitment patterns and reinforcing proper running posture. In addition to the mechanical benefits, hill running also improves your aerobic fitness.

Reduce Risk and Build Fitness

Hill training is much safer than traditional interval work or other types of running that produce a similar effort. The impact force of uphill running is so much less than it is on flat ground. Being located in the mountains of North Carolina, our On ZAP Endurance athletes spend a lot of time training on hills.

In addition to doing traditional uphill repeats we often do uphill tempo runs. The trick to reaping the benefits of hill training is also being careful of running too much downhill. Downhill running has its benefits as well. However, it does increase the impact forces on your body greatly compared to uphill and flat running. If you are going to add hill training to your routine be cautious with downhills. When running downhill focus on keeping your feet landing underneath your hips.

Sustained Uphill Workouts

While running sustained uphill runs of 5-7 miles like we do here in the mountains isn’t a realistic option for most people, you can do sustained uphill running, it may just be indoors on a treadmill. If you’re faced with treadmill running during the winter months anyway, mixing in some sustained uphill running is a fantastic way to elevate your fitness while reducing the impact stress normally associated with harder running.

There is a designed treadmill workout we use with our athletes that is ideal for passing the time on the treadmill. We don’t use it for that purpose, but it is a nice ancillary benefit. It is called “minute-minute-minute cycles” and the structure sounds complicated, but it’s quite simple.

After an easy warm-up, start at 30-40 seconds/mile slower than marathon pace at an incline of 1%. Run that pace for 1 minute, and then move the pace up .1 mph and the incline to 2% for the 2nd minute, and up .1mph and to 3% for the 3rd minute. After the 3rd minute go right back to the 1st minute and repeat the sequence up to 2-3 times before moving on to the next 3 minute sequence. Begin the next sequence .1 mph faster than the previous sequence. You can do up to 5-6 three minute sequences. And once you get the hang of it you can mix up the paces and the inclines a little bit more. It does require a lot of button pushing, but it’s a great workout to practice changing gears within a run.

Side note: If you’re looking for pacing guidance on running uphill on the treadmill workouts here is a great resource.

Beginning Hill Training

Before trying the “minute-minute-minute cycle” workout you should spend 3-4 weeks where you finish one run a week with some uphill repeats. Start with 6-10 repeats of 25 seconds each with a very easy walk or jog to the bottom between each. The next week do 6-10 repeats of 40-45 seconds each. The following week, 6-10 repeats of 60 seconds each. From there you can increase repeats or vary the distance. For example, do 3-4 repeats of 60 seconds, 3-4 repeats of 45 seconds, and 3-4 repeats of 30 seconds. All of these hill repeat workouts should be done at a strong effort, but one where you finish feeling like you could do more.  If you’re on the treadmill you should target an incline of 3-6%

Try running more hills this winter to keep you motivated and engaged. And use them to springboard your fitness to new heights in 2022.

If you’re interesting in learning more about ZAP Coaching and working one-on-one with one of our coaches toward your spring and summer goals click here.