The Basics of Running: Hills & Hill Training

HILLS — The dreaded word that most runners hate seeing, talking about or training for.

Let’s jump back in time three years to when I first started running. Living in Michigan we have parts of our state that has amazing hills to run, while other parts of our state is as flat as the Great Plains. I began to train for my first few races and being a new runner I picked the flattest areas I could to train on — can you blame me??

Then it happens… the same thing that eventually happens to every single beginning runner.  One day you show up on race day all excited, expecting to PR, you take off and about a mile or two into the race it happens — you hit a hill. And not just any hill — a hill that appears to be the biggest hill you have ever seen (okay, maybe I am exaggerating just a little bit, but at the time that is how it feels) and then you realize that you have never ran up a hill. “Okay, I can do this!” you say to yourself as you charge up the hill; and 10 feet in your spent, having to stop and briskly walk the rest of the hill.

hilly-road

Hills are tough and challenging for even the most experienced runner, so if you are just starting out and have to walk hills that’s okay!  Do not get discouraged with yourself. Hills break your rhythm, they make it harder to run a fast time and they put an immense stain on your body. Training to run hills is hard and it sucks; however, hills are an excellent way for you to build your strength  improve your speed and build your mental strength and confidence in successfully tackling hills.

Why Hill Running Works
Most runners today understand the importance of combining strength training with their regular running routines. Strength training helps to strengthen the tendons and ligaments, reduces the risk of injury and will help to improve your overall running form. The problem is that most runners tend to a majority of their strength training in the gym with specific workouts like squats, leg extensions, shoulder presses, and other weight lifting workouts. While exercises such as these will help increase your strength and muscle power, they do it in isolation of your running and focuses on individual joints and small sets of muscles.

Hill training forces the muscles in your hips, legs, ankles and feet to contract in 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 will lead to longer and faster running strides.

Now that we know that hill training — as much as it can stink — is incredibly good for you. So, how do you go about doing it?  First and foremost, you should have a good 6 to 8 weeks of running with a nice base established prior to beginning any hill training! Next:

Find the hill(s): Look for a hill that is 100 to 200 meters long. You want a hill with an incline that is steep enough to test you, but not so tough that you wont be able to maintain your running form.

These are two of the hills I hill train on in Mason.

These are two of the hills I hill train on. The hill on the right is on Elm Street and the hill on the left is on Park Street in Mason, MI.

Before you get started, make sure you warm up. Just like every other day you run or speed train, make sure you warm up properly! Try to get a 10 to 15 minute slow job before you actually start your hill training.

Don’t stare at your feet. Focus on the ground about 10 to 20 feet ahead of you, as this will help you stay mentally focused.

As you start uphill, shorten your stride just slightly.

Do not try to maintain the pace you were running on the flat surface. You are aiming for equal effort going up the hill as well as down the hill, not equal pace.  Trying to maintain the pace you were running on a flat surface will leave you exhausted later in your training session or towards the end of a race.

Work on maintaining your running form. Your posture should be upright. Do not lean forwards or backwards.  Your head, shoulders and back should form a straight line over your feet; and you should keep your feet low to the ground.

If your breathing begins to quicken too much it means that you are either going too fast, you are over-striding or bounding too far off the ground as you run. Use a light, ankle-flicking push-off with each step you take and avoid making an explosive motion. Making an explosive motion will only waste valuable 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 the run, including going up and down the hill.

In a race or when you are training make sure you run through the top of the hill. Do not crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back of your effort.

Accelerate gradually into the downhill. Most runners make one or two obvious mistakes when running downhill. They either sprint, which can cause severe muscle soreness later on, or they are so hesitant to surrender to gravity they are constantly braking, which will fatigue the quadriceps muscles.

Try not to let your feet slap on the ground when you are running downhill. Step lightly and do not reach out with your feet. Slapping your feet can be a sign of weak muscles in the shin area, in which case you need to work on strengthening them.

Try to visualize gravity pulling you down the hill.

Keep your feet close to the ground, just like when running up the hill, for maximum control and make sure you land lightly.

As you increase your pace coming down the hill, work on having a quicker turnover rather than longer strides, though your strides can be slightly longer.

The key to efficiently running downhill is to stay in control. When you start, keep your strides slightly shortened and let your turnovers increase. When you feel in control, gradually lengthen your stride.

If you start to run out of control when running downhill, shorten your stride until you feel like you are back in control again.

Just like speed training, when doing hill training do not do hill training more than once a week. Make sure you try mixing up the hills you train on –- some short and steep, and other longer ones with a smaller incline.

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Thanks to Runner’s World for help with some of the information above! 

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