The Ups and Downs of Hill Training
How and why Get-Fit Guy thinks you should run up and down a hill, over and over again.
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Picture this: it is a dark, winter night. It is negative 20 degrees Celsius outside (negative 4 Fahrenheit) and a group of runners are diligently following their coach (me) up and down a rather steep and snow covered hill. There is laughter, some shouting (and cursing), but mostly there is the steady deep breathing sound of hard charging runners who are working to improve their spring marathon finishing times. How will they do this? Why would they do this? Well, let's start with some research.
In 2010, a group of Australian researchers used the latest technology to investigate the question of what is the best way to run on hills. They coerced a bunch of runners to go out on a hilly 10-kilometer course while wearing a portable gas analyzer to measure oxygen consumption, a GPS to measure speed and acceleration, a heart-rate monitor, and an activity tracker that measured their stride rate and stride length. The results published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, suggest that most runners make two mistakes on the hills: They run too fast uphill and not fast enough downhill. What? I know that seems odd but stick with me.
Think about your last long run. When you were running on flat terrain, the speed you ran at was limited by your heart and lungs, which were doing their best to transport oxygen to the muscles in your legs, core and various other parts of your body used while running. Now, when you try to nail that same pace while dragging your booty up a hill, you'll notice that you're almost immediately breathing harder than you were on the flat terrain and that is because you need to suck more oxygen in so you can power your hill climbing legs.
The problem here is that trying to maintain the same speed on the hill as you were on the flat ground (assuming that it is even possible to do) is that once you get to the top of the hill, you'll need time to recover from this extra oxygen-sucking effort. In the study, runners took an extra 78 seconds to return to their initial speed after cresting a hill and a delay like that can completely negate any potential benefit from all that hard work going up the hill.
So, the researchers suggested that a better approach would be to decrease your speed slightly on the uphill. They believe that this slight slow down should be more than compensated for by being able to return to the faster running speed once the terrain levels out again.
Now, on the downhill part of the study, the opposite was true. Due to the quadricep busting impact involved in running downhill and the relentless pull of gravity, most of us simply can't run fast enough to get to the point where we are actually limited by the oxygen we can gulp like we were on flat ground or the uphill running.
The downhill results were much less consistent than the uphill and level sections of the experiment. Some runners were able to run far closer to their aerobic limits than others, gaining valuable time without becoming significantly more tired. Which is super cool and a big reason why I believe downhill running is absolutely worth practicing, even on a dark, cold mid-winter’s night.
As a bipedal species, there are a couple reasons we all generally back off while we are going downhill:
It's hard on the legs and it raises the risk of an impact injury.
It’s easy to lose control and wipe out when gravity is given the reins.
Because of reason number one, it appears to be prudent to limit downhill training to short sprints on a gentle grade as demonstrated by a 2008 study from Marquette University in Wisconsin titled: The optimal downhill slope for acute overspeed running. They found that a 10-per-cent grade (or 5.7-degree slope) was ideal to maximize your speed and a 40-yard sprint was the ideal distance to reap the benefits without you, your quads or knees blowing up.
It appears that the advice “slow down on the ascent, speed up on the descent” should help you rock those hills!
So, with all this in mind, it appears that the advice “slow down on the ascent, speed up on the descent” should help you rock those hills but you're going to need to practice this to find the right balance - and this is why I had my athletes out running hills even in the middle of winter.
Whether you are running, cycling, cross country skiing, speed walking, you name it - getting out there and going up and down a hill, over and over again, is the best way to maximize your ability to handle them when it counts.