Hill Training has a strengthening effect as well as boosting your power. In hill running, you are using your body weight as a resistance to push against, so the driving muscles from which your leg power is derived have to work harder. The technique to aim for is a “bouncy” style where you have a good knee lift and maximum range of movement in the ankle. You should aim to drive hard, pushing upwards with your toes, flexing your ankle as much as possible, landing on the front part of the foot and then letting the heel come down below the level of the toes as the weight is taken. This stretches the calf muscles upwards and downwards as much as possible and applies resistance which over time will improve your power and elasticity. You should look straight ahead, as you run (not at your feet) and ensure your neck, shoulders and arms are free of tension. Many experts believe that the “bouncy” action is more important than the speed at which you run up the hills. Hill work results in the calf muscles learning to contract more quickly and thereby generating work at a higher rate, they become more powerful. The calf muscle achieves this by recruiting more muscle fibres, around two or three times as many when compared to running on the flat. The “bouncy” action also improves the power of the quads in the front of the thigh as they provide the high knee lift that is required. It can also mean higher running speeds and shorter foot strike times. Hill training offers the following benefits:
– helps develop power and muscle elasticity
– improves stride frequency and length
– develops co-ordination, encouraging the proper use of arm action during the driving phase and feet in the support phase
– develops control and stabilisation as well as improved speed (downhill running)
– promotes strength endurance
– develops maximum speed and strength (short hills)
– improves lactate tolerance (mixed hills)
Don’t blast up hills in the early part of your workout as this can stop you working through subsequent miles. The idea is to run constantly at a hard but not super fast speed. You should not feel like you are racing but as though you are running just slightly slower than your lactate threshold. Alternatively, if you are using a heart rate monitor this should be at around 85% of maximum during at least the last two-thirds of your run. The benefits of short, medium and long hills are quite different, and can be used at different times of the year.
A short hill is one which takes no more that 30 seconds to run up and has an inclination between 5 and 15 degrees gradient. Your energy source on short hills is entirely anaerobic. You should focus on a running technique which has vigorous arm drive and high knee lift, with the hips kept high, so that they are ‘running tall’, not leaning forwards. The session is anaerobic so the recovery time can be long, a walk back down the hill, or a slow jog of 60 to 90 seconds. The total volume (number of repetitions) will depend on your overall fitness and the reason for doing it. A sprinter looking for strength might do 10 repetitions of 15 second duration up a steep slope with a long recovery where as a distance runner who is trying to improve sprinting speed might do 30 repetitions of 15 seconds duration. Example of short hill sessions:
– 8 to 10 repetitions over 50 metres (sprinters)
– 8 to 10 repetitions over 150 metres (middle distance athletes)
– 8 to 10 repetitions over 200 metres (long distance athletes)
A medium hill is one that takes between 30 to 90 seconds to run up. This is the length of hill that is a good distance for the middle-distance runner, because it combines the benefits of the short hills with the stresses on muscular endurance and tolerance of lactic acid. Use a hill as steep as one in six to one in ten, so that you can run at something near race pace. The energy source is both aerobic and anaerobic and you will experience the build up in blood lactate as you go further up the hill. A run up a hill combination along Martins Way in Stevenage, for example. Scuttling up the hill with a short stride and forward lean may be the best way to get up in a race, but in training, we are trying to develop particular qualities. It is better, therefore, to go for a longer stride and higher knee lift: running tall with the hips pushed forwards, keeping the back upright. Generally volume will depend on overall objectives again but a session of between 8 to 12 reps of 60 seconds is suitable with a slow jog back to the bottom for recovery.
A long hill is one which takes from 90 seconds to three minutes plus. Here most of the energy comes from aerobic sources, but if parts of the hill are steep and you are running them hard, there will still be an accumulation of blood lactate. There will be muscular fatigue in the leg muscles, and possibly in the abdominal muscles too, but the main limiting factor will be your cardiovascular system. As these hill sessions are aerobic, you will not use as much power per stride as the shorter hills. They are particularly good for the cross country or road runner who is running distances of 10,000m and upwards. A session of, say eight times three minutes, with a run back of four or five minutes will make a good hard workout.
Mixed hill running
The attraction of mixed hill training is that it can be fitted in with the terrain you are running on and can, therefore, be interesting and full of variety. Two advantages can come from this type of hill training:
– Race simulation. It is a good principle to rehearse in training the situations you are likely to meet in a race, such as trying to break open a gap by running hard over the top of a hill and keeping the pace going instead of easing up, as many runners do.
– Downhill running. This is something that often causes jarring and strains. Repeated fast downhill runs are not advised but you should practice them within a mixed hills session to find the most relaxed way of running downhill without strain (see the section below on downhill running for further details on the appropriate running style).
Mixed hill running can also be used to improve running economy and boost your VO2 max level. A typical mixed hills session would be over a six or seven mile undulating hilly course, starting the session jogging at a modest pace and gradually picking up the intensity as you move through the hills.
For most races you spend as much time going down hills as you spend going up them so it makes sense to practice running down hills, even just a little. Used with caution, downhill training can be very beneficial, strengthening the quads and preparing them for the uphill training and racing you will be doing. A runner going down a hill can experience as much as 40 per cent more leg shock than on the flats so it pays to take care in your downhill training. The trick is to develop a feel for good downhill running form by practising it until it becomes subconscious to relax and almost throw yourself downhill at quick paces. That is not to say throw yourself recklessly down hills! For optimum downhill running your body should be perpendicular to the ground and relaxed. That is leaning forward by exactly the slope of the hill. This not only helps gravity give you forward momentum but it ensures that each stride carries you parallel to the running surface rather than bouncing you jarringly up and down. Avoid leaning backwards because this will result in a braking action, increasing impact through your legs and will lead to greater impact through your joints, particularly the knees. It also wastes a great deal of energy and speed.
This is a method of running a series of up and down hill efforts using a constant effort. Unlike their European and American counterparts who tended to blast up hills and use the downhill sections to recover, the Kenyans would train using a constant effort through the ups and downs. This meant that they were not necessarily climbing hills at such a quick rate but were in better form during the downhill sections and achieved better pace overall. Kenyan hills training consists of finding a series of hills and running these as a series of repetitions, usually over a total timed effort e.g. 20 or 30 minutes. The training takes a degree of discipline in order to ensure that the whole session is run at a constant effort, holding back slightly in the uphill sections and using good downhill form (see above) to keep up the pace. These can be tough sessions because there is no perception of a recovery period throughout it if they are completed correctly but they have huge benefits in training the muscles for the hill repeats as well as the mind and body into maintaining a good, consistent running form and pace.