Runners at intermediate level and above will benefit hugely from cycles of hill training during the year. Running hills means using the body weight as resistance, i.e. you are running up a hill carrying a heavy load and the heavy load is your body.
That puts pressure on the legs and is in effect weight training for them. It’s weight training in a functional way rather than lying on your back doing leg presses or standing on the spot doing squats, neither of which mimic the biomechanics of running (that’s not to say don’t do them as well though).
Hill work results in the calf muscles lengthening under load, which is called eccentric contraction, it’s a fab way of strengthening muscles but risks injury if not done properly, e.g. not warming up, not being sufficiently trained or planning the workout badly. Similarly running downhill has great effect on quad strength but causes eccentric contraction of the quads and more chance of tears, it can also wreak havoc with the knees if not done properly.
However, if done well, both can add a great deal of power to an athlete’s running. During hill running the calves use more of their fibres, about twice that of flat running. To add to its benefits it also delivers knee lift (which helps negate that marathon shuffle), leg turnover, ankle flexion and improves quad and glute strength, all of which help with speed.
Aside from the muscular and neuromuscular benefits, hill running also improves aerobic capacity; it drives up the point at which you become breathless, enabling you to run faster more comfortably.
Summing up hill training benefits
- Improves muscle power
- Improves leg lift
- Improves leg turnover
- Improves stride length
- Increases ankle flexion which helps drive you
- Improves speed
- Improves aerobic capacity
- Improves hill running!
How to plan it
Plan cycles of eight weeks of weekly hill reps into your year’s training. Over the eight weeks build the workout progressively. You could start on a short hill and do six to eight reps, building the reps over the weeks perhaps so that you end up running a total of 15 mins up hill. If the hill takes a minute to ascend that’s 15 reps. Or mix things up by doing short reps one week and long reps another. With long reps choose a hill that takes 3-4 mins to climb, start with two reps and build to five. If you’re training for a hilly race train on hills similar to those you will race on.
How to do it
Warm up with a steady jog for five to eight minutes then start your reps. Run strongly up hill, not a sprint but a strong focused run; use the arms to help drive you forward; concentrate on maintaining good knee lift and not hunching forwards. Stay strong. Run through the top of the hill rather than stopping short. Immediately turn and run back down so as to recover a little but not fully. On the downhill make sure you have a light touch with the feet and avoid heel striking, lean forward into the down-ness and think like a gazelle! You’re not running down fast but you are running down WELL! At the bottom turn again and immediately run back up. Dedicated downhill reps are really only for experienced, strong, runners and technique is paramount. After the reps do a cool down jog for around five minutes, then stretch. The following day’s run should be an easy/steady one, or a rest day.
Give it a go, you’ll see improvements very quickly.
If you would like a personalised running plan or a generic sub-4hr marathon plan look at our sportnaturally pages. We have helped many people achieve their race goals.