Running hills is one of the most efficient strength training workouts that runners can do. Working against gravity, yet keeping your running stride will make your legs stronger and help you perform better on race day. And while many of us think (or thought) that hills were some diabolical plot, dreamt up by our mean coaches to beat us down…they are the secret to many of the best runner’s successes!
Hill workouts should be treated like a speed or long distance day, that is, give yourself 2-3 days of non-strenuous workouts after it to fully recover. If you’re just starting out, look for a nice 200m-400m hill with at a 5% - 15% incline. To estimate the incline percentage, look from the bottom to the top of the hill and approximate the height. I do this by looking at houses or light poles (the average of which is usually 25-30 feet tall). So, for example, if I’ve found a 400m hill (1320 feet) and it appears that the hill is about 3-4 houses high from top to bottom (105 feet). The incline percent is equal to 105 / 1320 or 8%. Don’t get hung up on the exact incline, it should be steep enough to be tough…but not so steep that you can’t keep a fluid stride.
When running hills, try to maintain your lactate threshold pace for the interval. This should feel slightly slower than your 10k pace, but still brisk enough to feel like an interval. Initially try to run 3-5 hills and gradually increase this to 7-10 hills over the course of your training. Hill training will take quite a toll on your legs, so be sure to give yourself ample rest after each workout, and I’d recommend walking / slow jogging the downhill between repetitions.
If you have access to a good treadmill, this can be a great way to regulate your incline and pace for running hills. Most of the better treadmills will smoothly transition up to a 10-15% hill. And unlike the undulations that neighborhood hills have, treadmills are steady and consistent. It’s also nice to have the steady pacing of a treadmill, as it will hold you back on your first interval and likely push you pretty hard on your last interval. A treadmill can be a great training tool, especially if you live in a flat area.
So how will running hills make you faster? When we run up a hill, we are doing a form of resistance training. While going through our natural running movements, we are also lifting our own body weight up the hill. This means that the muscles of our legs have to work harder to run at the same pace, than if it was a flat path. Our stride is usually shortened and we tend to rise up a bit on the forward part of our feet. By smoothly and quickly striding up hills, we gain a running cadence and inner confidence while our legs get a great strength workout. So aside from the physiological benefits, there are some considerable psychological benefits, as well! Watch the agony and fear that many runners display when running up or talking about hills. Run enough hills, and you’ll own that part of the race, both mentally and physically.
Our form when we run hills is also important, as it can help propel us up without needlessly losing energy due to inefficiencies. As mentioned before, your stride length will shorten slightly, which should be the same perceived race effort as before you started the hill climb. You don’t want to sprint up the hill, per se, unless the finish line is at the top. You want to reach the top and keep going at your race pace. Your arms should maintain their forward & back swing (not side to side). I tell the runners on my team to “pump their arms” which helps them focus on the correct movements. Side-to-side momentum can really slow you down. Another important part of our form that we need to maintain is our erect posture. Leaning forward (as I used to do quite often), exacerbates our battle with gravity when running up a hill. We need the weight of our body to be over our foot-strike on hills and throughout our run.
If you’re looking for workouts to add to your routine to build speed, it’s hard to overlook hill training. Running hills will make you stronger, faster, and more mentally prepared than those that don’t. Now head for the hills & happy running!!