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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.

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #351

Preparation

Before you slip on your shoes and start running up and down the steepest hill you can find, let’s avoid any chance of ending up injured due to the “Too Much, Too Soon” principle and talk about some pre-hab.

Creating a circuit of the following exercises and doing them a couple times a week for a few weeks will prepare your body for the punishment that hills can dole out.

  • Sideways Lunge - to work the quads and glutes.

  • Squats -  to work the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

  • Deadlifts - to strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and calves, which give you stability and control on downhills.

  • Step Ups - to develop powerful quads for stronger hill climbing.

  • Forward Lunge - to build stability and strength that helps you maintain good running form while going up and down and up and down that hill.

I would suggest doing each move 10-15 times in a circuit, 3-4 times through. Mixing this circuit in with your regular running program will not only keep you out of the physiotherapist's office but will also turn you into a hill crushing machine.

Hit the Slopes!

The great thing about hill repeats is that running up hills can improve your running form by increasing your knee lift, joint mobility, and neuromuscular fitness (which is how well your nervous system communicates with your muscles). Hills can also improve muscular strength (your ability to produce force) and power (your ability to produce a lot of force quickly). And as we learned from that Australian study, running on hills can provide a real added cardiovascular boost.

I know what you are thinking now: what can running downhill do for me? Well, it can improve your foot speed, increase your range of motion, make you a smoother and more efficient runner on any terrain, and reduce your risk of injuries as you become more and more like a mountain goat and less and less like a Sasquatch.

While you are running on those uphills, here are a few things to remember:

  1. The most common advice you might hear is to “lean into the hill” but this often causes runners to lean from their waist which not only messes with your posture but also makes it harder to get that much-needed oxygen. You do want to lean forward into the hill but make sure you lean from the ankles and not the waist.

  2. Keep your head and eyes up, looking about 30 meters in front of you. If you drop your gaze and head, you again limit how much oxygen you can take in and that head position can cause you to slouch.

  3. Drive your arms (or elbows) straight forward and back and use them as pistons. I find that if you concentrate on driving your elbows back, you get the best results. 

  4. Focus on driving your knee up the hill, not into the hill like you might do if you maintained your normal knee drive.

  5. Plantar flex (point your toes toward the ground) at the ankle. Think of yourself exploding off your ankle and using that last bit of power from your toe to propel yourself up the hill with minimal energy expenditure.

Then, while you are running back down the hill, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Just like when running uphill, you want to have a slight lean forward to take advantage of the downhill. Don’t overdo the lean, you only need a slight tilt to benefit from gravity and too much of a lean and you will land on your face. I like to think of myself as a cartoon waiter running with a huge stack of plates - you have to keep moving at the right pace and lean or you will topple the plates.

  2. Keep your arms relaxed and only slightly moving forward and back. Don’t flail them to the sides, this will waste energy. I like to repeat the phrase “just go limp” as I run downhill.

  3. Keep your head up and your eyes looking forward instead of down... as much as you safely can.

  4. Land with your foot either beneath your torso. Extending your leg too much will cause you to land on your heel, which will act like a break. Focus on landing towards your midfoot to maintain speed without losing control.

  5. Your stride length will naturally extend when running downhill but don’t consciously increase it. The pace and the grade of the hill will do this naturally.

How Does Hill Training Work?

When you are pumping iron, if you want to improve your maximum bench press you don't do a ton of light-weight reps or do simply do your reps faster. No, you increase the amount of weight on the bar to increase the force that is required to complete each rep.

Hills are the running equivalent of more weight on the bar. If you want to get stronger and faster, you must increase the force requirements of the workout.

Hills are the running equivalent of more weight on the bar. If you want to get stronger and faster, you must increase the force requirements of the workout. Tempo runs, time trials and fast sprints on the track are good for speed but they don't generate maximum force. Not like hills do!

While running on hills we can target all three types of muscle fiber (or muscle cells):

  • Slow-twitch or Type I, which produces the least force of the fiber types, but it works aerobically and takes a long time to fatigue,

  • Intermediate fast-twitch or Type IIa, which produce more force than slow-twitch, creating the long, powerful strides which are often associated with middle-distance running,

  • Fast-twitch or Type IIb, which produce the most force but they function anaerobically and are useful only for very short bursts.

We can leverage all of these muscle cells by using long hill runs for endurance, long hill reps for strength, and short hill reps for speed.

Long Hill Runs:

Performing a long hill (or hills) run can increase the percentage of slow-twitch fibers recruited, creates extra resistance, strengthen our fibers, increase ankle flexibility, improve our stride, reduce neural inhibition, improve coordination between muscle groups, and recruit intermediate fibers, improving coordination between fiber types.

I suggest adding a half-mile to a mile of moderately steep uphill running into your weekly long run. After a while, you can increase the volume of uphill to 2–3 miles. Make sure you keep the effort comfortably aerobic. If you go too hard, it could end up decreasing the volume of hill work you are able to do, and increasing the time it takes to recover.

Long Hill Repeats:

Long hill repeats can almost be viewed as a form of strength training. The powerful contractions caused by the lifting of the hips, glutes and quads when you’re running up the hill relies on the same mechanics as many plyometrics exercises. As a bonus, because long hill repeats are intense and last between 30-90 seconds, they are also a great VO2 max workout.

This is what a Long Hill Repeat progression might entail: 4-8 reps of 30 seconds up the hill with a 2-3 minutes rest. 4-8 reps of  60 seconds running uphill with a 3-4 minutes rest. 4-6 reps of 90 seconds hill running with a 4-5 minutes rest.

A simple rule for these workouts is to finish every repetition workout with just enough gas in the tank to run one or two more repeats if your coach suddenly surprised you with some extra bonus reps. It’s kind of a Goldilocks type of pace.

Short Hill Repeats:

This workout achieves two training objectives for distance runners. It strengthens all three types of muscle fiber, and reduces neuromuscular inhibition (one of the root causes of strength discrepancies between left side and right side muscles seen in most athletes).

To do this workout, start by sprinting up a steep hill at 90 to 95 percent maximum effort to recruit the most muscle fibers possible.  I suggest starting with four or five reps of 30 to 60 meters (or 5–10 seconds) up a steep hill, then build up over time to eight to 12 reps. And make sure to recover by walking back down the hill and waiting for your heart rate to fall back into the comfortable zone (1-2 minutes).

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