Hill Training

by Will LePage

Although many runners loathe any bit of upward slope that interrupts their pancake routes, hills can be terrific training grounds for distance athletes of all levels. The increased resistance from gravity is a catalyst for cardiovascular fitness and leg strength. The effectiveness of hill training is evidenced by its prevalence in the collegiate and professional ranks, even during the track season.

Hill training’s benefits revolve around added resistance combined with lower impact forces. The increased effect of gravity is like strapping weights all over your body, but the positive grade actually decreases the impact associated with each footfall. In this way, hills allow for more cardio work per step. The benefits are also seen on the muscular level. When you climb a hill, your body calls for extra power from the same muscle groups that are pivotal for an efficient stride on level ground: the calves, the gluteal muscles, and the quadriceps. By becoming a better hill runner, you also become a more efficient flatland runner.

Hill training can be divided into three categories: hilly runs, hill intervals, and hill charges. Hilly runs, or moderate distance runs with several hills, are the easiest to integrate into your schedule. Simply create some routes that take advantage of the many hills in central Missouri and hit them up once or twice a week. Even your weekly long run can be hilly. For proper hill running form, focus on quick, light strides with moderate knee lift. Avoid letting your core slump or your arms swing extravagantly. By regularly climbing hills at normal pace, your body will become accustomed to the added workload and will adapt for more difficult running.

The next type of hill training, hill intervals, is a workout that consists of repeatedly climbing a hill at a fast pace and then slowly descending the hill for recovery. The length of each repetition is determined by the size of the hill. Smaller hills (50-75 meters if measured with a tape wheel) may take 30-45 seconds of hard running to ascend, while the monstrosities of mid-Missouri (some over 200 meters long) can require over 3 minutes. Of course, if you're looking for a shorter hill, you can always simply stop halfway up a large hill. Once you have climbed the hill at a fast pace, your body needs a recovery. It should take up to two times as long to descend the hill than it did to climb it: gravity decreases the impact on the up but increases the impact going down, so take it easy on the down. To incorporate hill intervals into your training, start with a medium-grade hill that takes about 1 minute to ascend. Do 3 or 4 repetitions the first week and then add one rep the next week if you feel stronger. Never do more than one set of hill intervals per week, and don’t forget to warm-up beforehand and warm-down afterwards with 10 to 20 minutes of easy running each.

The final type of hill training is a brief series of short but intense sprints on a steep grade, called hill charges. These speedy reps of less than 20 seconds each increase the efficiency of your body’s neuromuscular system, or the connection between your muscles and the brain. You see, when your brain commands the muscles to fire, only a fraction of the fibers in that muscle group are actually activated. However, the neuromuscular system can be trained to utilize more muscle fibers (“muscle fiber recruitment”) with each stride, making your steps more efficient. In addition to muscle fiber recruitment, these short hill sprints teach your muscles to synchronize their contraction/relaxation cycles so that your muscles don’t work against each other. Your muscles are grouped into agonistic and antagonistic groups, such as the quadriceps and the hamstrings: the instant the quads need to contract, the hamstrings must relax in unison, and vice versa. Unfortunately the body doesn’t do a remarkable job at this, but hill charges are an effective way to improve this element of neuromuscular fitness. To add hill charges to your regimen, find a very steep hill with good footing. Once a week after a regular easy run, do 3 reps of 10 seconds near maximum pace on your steep hill. Add one rep each week until you are doing 12 hill charges. Between reps, take as much recovery as you need, as much as 3 minutes. Hill charges are not about building endurance directly: sprinting up the steep hill simply forces your body to utilize more of its muscle power in a more efficient manner.

In conclusion, hills can give big benefits for your performance if you know how to use them to your benefit.

This article is written as a basic guide for your training decisions and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or training advice. As with all fitness programs, consult your doctor’s approval before you begin.