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Get Faster run times with Hill Training

Here is a video I put together three years ago to teach runners how to utilize hills to get faster run times. Hill training is essential if your race even is in a destination with elevation. While it may have been irrelevant in most events in Florida here in Southern California we have some massive climbs!

Check out the video to learn how to utilize your hills for faster race times!

Why hill running works
Runners today increasingly understand the importance of combining strength work with regular running. It strengthens tendons and ligaments, reduces the risk of injury and improves overall running form. The problem is that most runners tend to do the majority of their strength-specific work in the gym, through squats, leg extensions or arm and shoulder presses. While these exercises do increase strength and muscular power, they do it in isolation of your running, focusing on individual joints and small sets of muscles.

Hill sessions, in contrast, force the muscles in your hips, legs, ankles and feet to contract in a coordinated fashion while supporting your full body weight, just as they have to during normal running. In addition, on uphill sections your muscles contract more powerfully than usual because they are forced to overcome gravity to move you up the hill. The result is more power, which in turn leads to longer, faster running strides.

Science of hills
Much of the science supporting hill training was carried out in Sweden, initially at the Karolinska Institute. One major study carried out on marathon runners discovered that after 12 weeks of twice-weekly hill sessions, the athletes’ running economy had improved by three per cent. Although the subjects were trained runners, that improvement would still have helped them clip as much as two minutes off a 10-mile time or six minutes off a marathon.

Other research, carried out by Dr Bengt Saltin, discovered that runners who trained on hills have much higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes – the chemicals which allow your muscles to function at high intensity for long periods without fatigue – in their quadriceps muscles than those who did all their running on flat terrain. Heightened aerobic power in your quads gives you improved knee lift while running and also accelerates each leg forward more quickly as you run, which improves your speed.

Those who run on hills have also been shown to be less likely to lose fitness when they take time off from training. And many scientists believe that hill training can improve the elasticity of muscles, tendons and ligaments, allowing these tissues to carry out more work with less effort and fatigue.

Going Up
It is the moment all runners dread. You turn the corner and right in front of you is a big, imposing hill. But don’t wince, focus. Shift gears both mentally and physically and prepare to attack the hill; don’t let it attack you. Running hills well is all about rhythm; if you let the hill break up your rhythm you will slow dramatically. But if you make the proper adjustments and maintain your cadence you’ll make molehills out of the mountains. Here’s how:

  • As you start uphill, shorten your stride. Don’t try to maintain the pace you were running on the flat.
  • You are aiming for equal effort going up as well as down, not equal pace. Trying to maintain the pace you were running on the flat will leave you exhausted later in the race or session.
  • Take ‘baby steps’ if necessary and try to keep the same turnover rhythm that you had on the flat ground.
  • Your posture should be upright – don’t lean forward or back – your head, shoulders and back should form a straight line over the feet. Keep your feet low to the ground.
  • If your breathing begins to quicken it means that you’re either going too fast, over-striding or bounding too far off the ground as you run.
  • Use a light, ankle-flicking push-off with each step, not an explosive motion, which will waste energy. If the hill is long or the gradient increases, keep shortening your stride to maintain a smooth and efficient breathing pattern. If the gradient decreases, extend your stride again. Try to maintain the same steady effort and breathing throughout.
  • In a race, or when you’re training on a undulating course, run through the top of the hill. Don’t crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back on your effort.
  • Accelerate gradually into the downhill.

Coming Down
Most runners make one or two obvious mistakes when running downhill. They either sprint, which causes severe muscle soreness later on, or they’re so hesitant to surrender to gravity that they’re constantly braking, which fatigues the quadriceps muscles. The optimum pace is somewhere in between. Try not to let your feet slap on the ground when you are running downhill. Step lightly and don’t reach out with your feet. Slapping can be a sign of weak muscles in the shin area, in which case you need to strengthen them. To help your downhill technique, follow these simple tips:

  • Try to visualise gravity pulling you down the hill.
  • Try to maintain an upright body posture, keeping your torso perpendicular to the horizontal.
  • Keep your feet close to the ground for maximum control, and land lightly.
  • As you increase your pace, emphasise quicker turnover rather than longer strides, though your strides can be slightly longer than normal.
  • The key to efficient downhill running is to stay in control. When you start, keep your stride slightly shortened and let your turnover increase. When you feel in control, gradually lengthen your stride.
  • If you start to run out of control when descending, shorten your stride until you feel you are back in control again.
Key Hill Sessions
Running hills is like doing speedwork, in effort if not in outright speed. It is hard on your body, so don’t do more than one of the following sessions per week.

Hill Intervals

This is the most basic and yet one of the most beneficial of sessions. Warm up with a 10- to 15-minute run and then do a set of intervals on a steep slope – it can be anywhere from 30 to 250 metres long. On the uphill section try to run at an intensity that is slightly harder than your best 5K race pace. Jog back to the foot of the hill and, when you’ve recovered, run hard up the hill again. Start with four or five intervals and gradually build up. You can increase the severity of this session by increasing the number of intervals and/or reducing the recovery time.
Benefit Boosts leg-muscle power, giving you quicker, longer strides.

Hard Hills

For this session you need an undulating loop which includes a variety of climbs and descents, rather than a single slope. After a warm-up, start to run continuously over the rolling terrain at slightly less than 10K pace. Try to attack the hills on the climbs, building gradually to 10K race pace. Stay relaxed, balanced and under control on the downhill sections. Even if you have to loop around and double back on the same hills, try to find a route where you are constantly climbing or descending.
Benefit Increases leg-muscle power, improves the fatigue-resistance of your muscles and prepares your legs for harder sessions and races.

Indoor Hills

If you are reading this in Lincolnshire or Holland, don’t worry, you can make your own hills with a treadmill. Again, warm up with 10 minutes of easy running, then set the treadmill to a one per cent gradient and the speed to 10-15 seconds per mile slower than your current 10K race pace. Run at this pace for five minutes then increase the gradient to five per cent and run for two more minutes at the same pace. This should force your heart rate up by 10-15 per cent, increase your oxygen consumption by 25 per cent and quicken your breathing by 35 per cent. Run easily for five minutes and then try to repeat the interval. Over time you can force yourself up to four seven-minute intervals (five minutes at one per cent, two at five per cent) and reduce your recovery to three or four minutes.
Benefit Conditions you to attack on hills and makes you an explosive hill runner.

Bounding up Hills

After a thorough warm-up, ‘bound’ up the same hill you use for your intervals. As you run up the hill, spring from foot to foot with an exaggerated vertical body motion, bringing your knees up high and stretching the Achilles tendons fully as your feet hit the ground. To do this, land on your toes with each foot-strike and rock back onto your heel before springing upwards and forwards again. Start with four or five repetitions. To recover, jog easily down the slope.
Benefit Enhances the strength and elasticity of your muscles, tendons and ligaments and makes you a more efficient runner.

Group Hills

One of the problems of training with any mixed-ability group is balancing the effort and recovery of each person. That’s especially the case on hills. To train effectively as a group, set off together on a moderate climb (between 50-100 metres from top to bottom). When the fastest person in the group reaches the summit of the hill, everyone turns around and jogs back to its foot, ideally reaching it at the same time. The goal if you are new to hills is to start gently and to gradually improve your position on the slope with each interval. Those running at the front should run the session as a basic hill interval session.
Benefit Combines all the physical benefits of hills in a more motivating and competitive group environment.

Downhill Hills

Most people’s idea of hill running is only half the story. Hill sessions usually concentrate on running up hills rather than down, the implication being that downhill running is the easy part and requires no practice. In truth, efficient downhill running is a skill that will save you just as many seconds in a race as efficient uphill running.Start on a gentle slope with a stretch of flat terrain at the base. After 10 minutes of jogging, ease into the descent with a short (50-metre) burst. Build up over time to as much as 300-400 metres downhill. Focus on your technique and try to go with the natural pace of the hill, but under control. Don’t sprint down, and try to avoid the opposite situation, where you try to brake with feet and quads. You can either focus specifically on the downhill section, in which case jog or run/walk back up the slope, or combine it with another hill session and take your recovery at the base. Ideally, though, you should do your downhill training on a rolling course where you can naturally practice the transition from uphill to downhill running. Running down after a hard climb, rather than taking a breather, is one of the key skills of hill running.
Benefits Conditions your legs against delayed onset muscle soreness, optimises your performance on hills.

Source: Runners World, March 2015

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