Hill training

Why Should it Form Part of your Training Plan?

We live in Manchester, not that many hills about? Should that matter? Well yes.

Hills are good for you and they’re good for your running. Training on hills improves leg-muscle strength, quickens your stride, expands stride length, develops your cardiovascular system, enhances your running economy and can even protect your leg muscles against soreness. In short, hill running will make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner. What’s more, the benefits are relatively quick to take effect. In as little as six weeks of regular hill training you can expect a significant improvement in your muscle power and speed.

 

Why Hill Running Works

Runners today increasingly understand the importance of combining strength work with regular running. It strengthens tendons and ligaments, reduces the risk of injury and improves overall running form. The problem is that most runners tend to do the majority of their strength-specific work in the gym, through squats, leg extensions or arm and shoulder presses. While these exercises do increase strength and muscular power, they do it in isolation of your running, focusing on individual joints and small sets of muscles.

Hill sessions, in contrast, force the muscles in your hips, legs, ankles and feet to contract in a 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 leads to longer, faster running strides.

If you make the proper adjustments and maintain your cadence you’ll make molehills out of the mountains. Here’s how:

As you start uphill, shorten your stride. Don’t try to maintain the pace you were running on the flat.

You are aiming for equal effort going up as well as down, not equal pace. Trying to maintain the pace you were running on the flat will leave you exhausted later in the race or session.

Take ‘baby steps’ if necessary and try to keep the same turnover rhythm that you had on the flat ground.

Your posture should be upright – don’t lean forward or back – your head, shoulders and back should form a straight line over the feet. Keep your feet low to the ground.

If your breathing begins to quicken it means that you’re either going too fast, over-striding or bounding too far off the ground as you run.

Use a light, ankle-flicking push-off with each step, not an explosive motion, which will waste 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.

In a race, or when you’re training on a undulating course, run through the top of the hill. Don’t crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back on your effort.

Accelerate gradually into the downhill.

Coming Down

Most runners make one or two obvious mistakes when running downhill. They either sprint, which causes severe muscle soreness later on, or they’re so hesitant to surrender to gravity that they’re constantly braking, which fatigues the quadriceps muscles. The optimum pace is somewhere in between. Try not to let your feet slap on the ground when you are running downhill. Step lightly and don’t reach out with your feet. Slapping can be a sign of weak muscles in the shin area, in which case you need to strengthen them. To help your downhill technique, follow these simple tips:

Try to visualise gravity pulling you down the hill.

Try to maintain an upright body posture, keeping your torso perpendicular to the horizontal.

Keep your feet close to the ground for maximum control, and land lightly.

As you increase your pace, emphasise quicker turnover rather than longer strides, though your strides can be slightly longer than normal.

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

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

 

Hill Intervals

This is the most basic and yet one of the most beneficial of sessions. Warm up with a 10- to 15-minute run and then do a set of intervals on a steep slope – it can be anywhere from 30 to 250 metres long. On the uphill section try to run at an intensity that is slightly harder than your best 5K race pace. Jog back to the foot of the hill and, when you’ve recovered, run hard up the hill again. Start with four or five intervals and gradually build up. You can increase the severity of this session by increasing the number of intervals and/or reducing the recovery time.

Benefit Boosts leg-muscle power, giving you quicker, longer strides.

Hard Hills

For this session you need an undulating loop which includes a variety of climbs and descents, rather than a single slope. After a warm-up, start to run continuously over the rolling terrain at slightly less than 10K pace. Try to attack the hills on the climbs, building gradually to 10K race pace. Stay relaxed, balanced and under control on the downhill sections. Even if you have to loop around and double back on the same hills, try to find a route where you are constantly climbing or descending.

Benefit Increases leg-muscle power, improves the fatigue-resistance of your muscles and prepares your legs for harder sessions and races.

 

Downhill

Most people’s idea of hill running is only half the story. Hill sessions usually concentrate on running up hills rather than down, the implication being that downhill running is the easy part and requires no practice. In truth, efficient downhill running is a skill that will save you just as many seconds in a race as efficient uphill running.

Start on a gentle slope with a stretch of flat terrain at the base. After 10 minutes of jogging, ease into the descent with a short (50-metre) burst. Build up over time to as much as 300-400 metres downhill. Focus on your technique and try to go with the natural pace of the hill, but under control. Don’t sprint down, and try to avoid the opposite situation, where you try to brake with feet and quads. You can either focus specifically on the downhill section, in which case jog or run/walk back up the slope, or combine it with another hill session and take your recovery at the base. Ideally, though, you should do your downhill training on a rolling course where you can naturally practice the transition from uphill to downhill running. Running down after a hard climb, rather than taking a breather, is one of the key skills of hill running.

Benefits Conditions your legs against delayed onset muscle soreness, optimises your performance on hills.