Love them or loathe them hills should be an essential part of any structured training plan. Not least, few races on the road, cross country or even parkrun will not have an incline to navigate at some stage. And even for those runners whose natural environment is the flat of the summer track, hill training still offers fantastic benefits.

Running up and indeed downhill is a skill in itself and needs to be practiced to improve performance and technique. Hill training develops strength in our muscles, tendons and ligaments but reduces the load we experience running at speed on the flat. 

So regular hill training can:

  • Build strength, power and flat speed
  • Improve lactate threshold
  • Reduce muscle load
  • Improve running form and running economy
  • Improve ability to run faster downhill

Strength, Power and Speed

In simple terms running up a hill is using gravity as a form of resistance. Running fast up a straight hill can really simulate the feeling you get at the end of a fast track race or 5k road race. To maintain the effort against the gradient requires power through the legs and arms and is a great way to develop that raw power to improve your speed. This is a useful session to add into the mix as your approach the spring and even used occasionally through the summer track and road race season to improve cadence and finish speed.

Session Tip: Find a hill with an even surface and steep gradient that allows you to maintain a consistent running form and long enough to run for 30-45 seconds at a 90% -95% effort level or Max HR. At the top take a slow jog down in 90 seconds and repeat 8 to 12 times.

Lactate Threshold

The great thing with hills is you can vary the session to target different energy systems depending on your goals and race requirements. Finding a longer hill and dialing down the effort and pace can turn a hill session into threshold work. Using the GPS / Heart Rate device you can keep a track of the zone you are working in – we are aiming to keep as much as the session as we can in zone 4 working around 80-85% Max HR and not letting this drop on the downhill recoveries.

Session Tip: Run up a 5-10% gradient for 45-90 seconds at a ‘threshold effort’. Turn immediately at the top and run down the hill at the same effort, then turn at the bottom and repeat without any recovery until the rep time ends. This might be 20 – 30 minutes of continuous effort or broken into shorter blocks of time. Like a tempo/threshold run, a hill session is time to concentrate, as you should be working at about 80–89% of MHR and be able to utter just a few words.

Muscle Load

As we increase our speed when we run, we also increase the load we place through our soft tissues. A track speed workout could be loading 9 times your body weight through your muscles. Hard speed interval sessions are of course a necessity for any middle distance runner but come with increased risk of muscle fatigue and potential injury. By replicating the same session on a hill, requires the same level of power to drive up the hill but at a slower pace and at less cost of muscle overload.  The Polar Vantage V now comes with a power meter to track the load our muscles are taking during any given session. Compare a hard track session with the equivalent hill workout and the muscle load data will show less impact from the hills.

Running Form and Economy

Watch anyone run up a hill and one of the things you will note aside from the pained fascial expression will be a change in their running form. Our running form up hill will naturally switch to a forefoot strike, higher knee drive and more propulsion from our arms. Everything we aim for on the flat! Regular hill training can improve our overall running form through neuromuscular adaptations over time and gradually see changes to our running economy. Improved running form = less energy requirement = faster running!

Downhill Running

When we think of hill training, we always think of the lung busting, jelly leg uphill efforts. But running fast downhill is a skill that can give you a winning advantage in a race. Downhill running requires your muscles to work in a slightly different way to running uphill, and is likely to be the cause of the sore quads the day after. Its rare to get injured running up a hill, but common cause of injury going down when we try to slam the breaks on and our knees and quads take the brunt of the gravity load. Try not to lean back or run too stiffly. Relax into the downhill and think about a ‘controlled fall’ down the hill.

Session Tip: Complete a series of uphill intervals, using the same stretch of hill for downhill efforts and reverse the efforts to fast downhill and slow jog recovery up hill. Your form should be loose, try not to tense your legs or lock your knees, and your arms should be relaxed and helping you balance.             

So stop avoiding those hills, and start embracing them! Find a variety of hills locally to you with different terrain, challenges and lengths and you will never be short of a tough hill session in your weekly mix.