Hill running is a powerful training tool in the quest for faster race times. Yet few athletes know how to take advantage of hill training as their workouts are usually centered within training zones that feature paces on flat terrain. But with the help of a heart rate monitor it’s quite easy to include hill training into your program without jeopardizing your training balance. In this article you will learn how.
“Hill running improves your running-specific muscular strength .”
The practice of hill running is not new to the running community. Legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard made extensive use of hill training sandwiched between the base phase and race-specific phase of his athletes. The idea was to establish a foundation of running-specific strength before converting it into race-specific speed on the track in the weeks that followed—with great success.
Phase 1: You will often hear me saying “from general to race-specific” when it comes to training progression. In the case of hill running, you will amplify the results if you precede it with a strength training routine 2 – 3x/week that is focused on your core and leg muscles. Squats, deadlifts, different forms of (weighted) lunges, calf raises and the like. Always prefer free weights over machines.
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Phase 2: Once you have established a good base of strength you can transition into hill running. Equal attention to strength training and hill running would likely to be an overkill and get in the way of your recovery. Remember, both are just a means to an end – which is faster running. Deemphasize strength training for you core and leg muscles as you introduce hill running into your training.
Phase 3: While hill running does a tremendous job at strengthening your running muscles, it fails to match the speed of track training. Running fast on flat terrain puts a much higher eccentric load on your muscles (downhill running even more so) and therefore reduces your ground contact time. Basically, track repeats and intervals ingrain the neuromuscular patterns for speed.
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Hill running – uphill and downhill – is an excellent means to increase the strength and power of your running muscles. Uphill running trains your running muscles concentrically and promotes ankle flexibility. Downhill running shifts the emphasis towards eccentric muscle action. The most common practices are hill sprints, hill fartlek, and downhill striding.
Hill sprinting: This is best suited to recruit a maximum of muscle fibers, including the powerful fast-twitch fibers. Hill sprints are ideally performed on a hill with an 8 – 10% incline. Start out with 4 uphill sprints of no more than 10 seconds (to avoid acidosis). Rest for 2min and repeat. Increase the number of reps to 10 over a few weeks. Focus on a knee lift and rear extension.
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Hill fartlek: This type of workout can be flexibly included into your usual training routine if you live in an area with hilly terrain. On an easy run, simply pick up the effort at hills that resembles the intensity (not necessarily the pace) of tempo runs. This can be done twice a week initially and be maintained with once a week thereafter. Make sure it doesn’t get in the way with your other runs.
Downhill striding: Similarly to uphill running, include it into your usual running routine. Pick up the pace on downhill sections, lean slightly into the hill, and freewheel downwards in a controlled manner. Not only is this a great way to strengthen your large quadriceps muscles eccentrically, it is also a skill that can be applied in races as many runners are too anxious to let go of the brakes.
In summary: Hill running is one of the best ways to strengthen your running specific muscles and to promote flexibility, especially in your ankles. Therefore it is a great way to prevent running-related injuries if introduced slowly. If, however, you have a pre-existing condition with your Achilles (uphill running) or your knees (downhill striding) then you’ll have to be careful at first.
Sandro Sket, CSCS