The Ups and Downs of Hill Training

Picture this: it is a dark, winter night. It is negative 20 degrees Celsius outside (negative 4 Fahrenheit) and a group of runners are diligently following their coach (me) up and down a rather steep and snow covered hill. There is laughter, some shouting (and cursing), but mostly there is the steady deep breathing sound of hard charging runners who are working to improve their spring marathon finishing times. How will they do this? Why would they do this? Well, let’s start with some research.


In 2010, a group of Australian researchers used the latest technology to investigate the question of what is the best way to run on hills. They coerced a bunch of runners to go out on a hilly 10-kilometer course while wearing a portable gas analyzer to measure oxygen consumption, a GPS to measure speed and acceleration, a heart-rate monitor, and an activity tracker that measured their stride rate and stride length. The results published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, suggest that most runners make two mistakes on the hills: They run too fast uphill and not fast enough downhill. What? I know that seems odd but stick with me.

Ups and Downs of Hill Running

Uphill

Think about your last long run. When you were running on flat terrain, the speed you ran at was limited by your heart and lungs, which were doing their best to transport oxygen to the muscles in your legs, core and various other parts of your body used while running. Now, when you try to nail that same pace while dragging your booty up a hill, you’ll notice that you’re almost immediately breathing harder than you were on the flat terrain and that is because you need to suck more oxygen in so you can power your hill climbing legs.

The problem here is that trying to maintain the same speed on the hill as you were on the flat ground (assuming that it is even possible to do) is that once you get to the top of the hill, you’ll need time to recover from this extra oxygen-sucking effort. In the study, runners took an extra 78 seconds to return to their initial speed after cresting a hill and a delay like that can completely negate any potential benefit from all that hard work going up the hill.

So, the researchers suggested that a better approach would be to decrease your speed slightly on the uphill. They believe that this slight slow down should be more than compensated for by being able to return to the faster running speed once the terrain levels out again.


Downhill

Now, on the downhill part of the study, the opposite was true. Due to the quadricep busting impact involved in running downhill and the relentless pull of gravity, most of us simply can’t run fast enough to get to the point where we are actually limited by the oxygen we can gulp like we were on flat ground or the uphill running.

The downhill results were much less consistent than the uphill and level sections of the experiment. Some runners were able to run far closer to their aerobic limits than others, gaining valuable time without becoming significantly more tired. Which is super cool and a big reason why I believe downhill running is absolutely worth practicing, even on a dark, cold mid-winter’s night.

As a bipedal species, there are a couple reasons we all generally back off while we are going downhill:

  1. It’s hard on the legs and it raises the risk of an impact injury.
  2. It’s easy to lose control and wipe out when gravity is given the reins.

Because of reason number one, it appears to be prudent to limit downhill training to short sprints on a gentle grade as demonstrated by a 2008 study from Marquette University in Wisconsin titled: The optimal downhill slope for acute overspeed running. They found that a 10-per-cent grade (or 5.7-degree slope) was ideal to maximize your speed and a 40-yard sprint was the ideal distance to reap the benefits without you, your quads or knees blowing up.


It appears that the advice “slow down on the ascent, speed up on the descent” should help you rock those hills!

So, with all this in mind, it appears that the advice “slow down on the ascent, speed up on the descent” should help you rock those hills but you’re going to need to practice this to find the right balance – and this is why I had my athletes out running hills even in the middle of winter.

Whether you are running, cycling, cross country skiing, speed walking, you name it – getting out there and going up and down a hill, over and over again, is the best way to maximize your ability to handle them when it counts.

Preparation

Before you slip on your shoes and start running up and down the steepest hill you can find, let’s avoid any chance of ending up injured due to the “Too Much, Too Soon” principle and talk about some pre-hab.

Creating a circuit of the following exercises and doing them a couple times a week for a few weeks will prepare your body for the punishment that hills can dole out.

  • Sideways Lunge – to work the quads and glutes.
  • Squats –  to work the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
  • Deadlifts – to strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and calves, which give you stability and control on downhills.
  • Step Ups – to develop powerful quads for stronger hill climbing.
  • Forward Lunge – to build stability and strength that helps you maintain good running form while going up and down and up and down that hill.

I would suggest doing each move 10-15 times in a circuit, 3-4 times through. Mixing this circuit in with your regular running program will not only keep you out of the physiotherapist’s office but will also turn you into a hill crushing machine.


Hit the Slopes!

The great thing about hill repeats is that running up hills can improve your running form by increasing your knee lift, joint mobility, and neuromuscular fitness (which is how well your nervous system communicates with your muscles). Hills can also improve muscular strength (your ability to produce force) and power (your ability to produce a lot of force quickly). And as we learned from that Australian study, running on hills can provide a real added cardiovascular boost.

I know what you are thinking now: what can running downhill do for me? Well, it can improve your foot speed, increase your range of motion, make you a smoother and more efficient runner on any terrain, and reduce your risk of injuries as you become more and more like a mountain goat and less and less like a Sasquatch.

While you are running on those uphills, here are a few things to remember:

  1. The most common advice you might hear is to “lean into the hill” but this often causes runners to lean from their waist which not only messes with your posture but also makes it harder to get that much-needed oxygen. You do want to lean forward into the hill but make sure you lean from the ankles and not the waist.
  2. Keep your head and eyes up, looking about 30 meters in front of you. If you drop your gaze and head, you again limit how much oxygen you can take in and that head position can cause you to slouch.
  3. Drive your arms (or elbows) straight forward and back and use them as pistons. I find that if you concentrate on driving your elbows back, you get the best results.
  4. Focus on driving your knee up the hill, not into the hill like you might do if you maintained your normal knee drive.
  5. Plantar flex (point your toes toward the ground) at the ankle. Think of yourself exploding off your ankle and using that last bit of power from your toe to propel yourself up the hill with minimal energy expenditure.

Then, while you are running back down the hill, keep these tips in mind:


  1. Just like when running uphill, you want to have a slight lean forward to take advantage of the downhill. Don’t overdo the lean, you only need a slight tilt to benefit from gravity and too much of a lean and you will land on your face. I like to think of myself as a cartoon waiter running with a huge stack of plates – you have to keep moving at the right pace and lean or you will topple the plates.
  2. Keep your arms relaxed and only slightly moving forward and back. Don’t flail them to the sides, this will waste energy. I like to repeat the phrase “just go limp” as I run downhill.
  3. Keep your head up and your eyes looking forward instead of down… as much as you safely can.
  4. Land with your foot either beneath your torso. Extending your leg too much will cause you to land on your heel, which will act like a break. Focus on landing towards your midfoot to maintain speed without losing control.
  5. Your stride length will naturally extend when running downhill but don’t consciously increase it. The pace and the grade of the hill will do this naturally.

How Does Hill Training Work?

When you are pumping iron, if you want to improve your maximum bench press you don’t do a ton of light-weight reps or do simply do your reps faster. No, you increase the amount of weight on the bar to increase the force that is required to complete each rep.

Hills are the running equivalent of more weight on the bar. If you want to get stronger and faster, you must increase the force requirements of the workout.

Hills are the running equivalent of more weight on the bar. If you want to get stronger and faster, you must increase the force requirements of the workout. Tempo runs, time trials and fast sprints on the track are good for speed but they don’t generate maximum force. Not like hills do!

While running on hills we can target all three types of muscle fiber (or muscle cells):

    • Slow-twitch or Type I, which produces the least force of the fiber types, but it works aerobically and takes a long time to fatigue,
    • Intermediate fast-twitch or Type IIa, which produce more force than slow-twitch, creating the long, powerful strides which are often associated with middle-distance running,
    • Fast-twitch or Type IIb, which produce the most force but they function anaerobically and are useful only for very short bursts.



We can leverage all of these muscle cells by using long hill runs for endurance, long hill reps for strength, and short hill reps for speed.

Long Hill Runs:

Performing a long hill (or hills) run can increase the percentage of slow-twitch fibers recruited, creates extra resistance, strengthen our fibers, increase ankle flexibility, improve our stride, reduce neural inhibition, improve coordination between muscle groups, and recruit intermediate fibers, improving coordination between fiber types.

I suggest adding a half-mile to a mile of moderately steep uphill running into your weekly long run. After a while, you can increase the volume of uphill to 2–3 miles. Make sure you keep the effort comfortably aerobic. If you go too hard, it could end up decreasing the volume of hill work you are able to do, and increasing the time it takes to recover.

Long Hill Repeats:

Long hill repeats can almost be viewed as a form of strength training. The powerful contractions caused by the lifting of the hips, glutes and quads when you’re running up the hill relies on the same mechanics as many plyometrics exercises. As a bonus, because long hill repeats are intense and last between 30-90 seconds, they are also a great VO2 max workout.

This is what a Long Hill Repeat progression might entail:
4-8 reps of 30 seconds up the hill with a 2-3 minutes rest.
4-8 reps of  60 seconds running uphill with a 3-4 minutes rest.
4-6 reps of 90 seconds hill running with a 4-5 minutes rest.

A simple rule for these workouts is to finish every repetition workout with just enough gas in the tank to run one or two more repeats if your coach suddenly surprised you with some extra bonus reps. It’s kind of a Goldilocks type of pace.


Short Hill Repeats:

This workout achieves two training objectives for distance runners. It strengthens all three types of muscle fiber, and reduces neuromuscular inhibition (one of the root causes of strength discrepancies between left side and right side muscles seen in most athletes).

To do this workout, start by sprinting up a steep hill at 90 to 95 percent maximum effort to recruit the most muscle fibers possible.  I suggest starting with four or five reps of 30 to 60 meters (or 5–10 seconds) up a steep hill, then build up over time to eight to 12 reps. And make sure to recover by walking back down the hill and waiting for your heart rate to fall back into the comfortable zone (1-2 minutes).

Bonus Hill Workouts

Bounding:

A great way to develop strength and stride efficiency is to incorporate “bounding” drills into our program. Use a moderate grade (6 or 7 percent) for this workout and perform the following variations of the bounding drill:

  • Vertical – Drive off the toes of the back foot, lift the opposite knee high, and emphasize vertical (upward) movement; land on the front (opposite) foot and repeat.
  • Horizontal – Same as vertical bounding, but concentrate on the length (not height) of the bound. It’s fun to imagine yourself as a speed skater doing this one.
  • Skipping – You likely know what skipping is but just in case, it is the same as the vertical bounding but you land on the same foot that started the bound, then take a step onto your opposite foot, and again you spring vertically, land on that foot, and rinse and repeat.

Do these for 50–70 meters and then jog nice and easy, back down the hill before you start the next repeat. One to two reps of each bounding drill is enough and will limit the number of curious stares that you receive.

Downhill Strides:

Finally, this workout is great for building your quadricep strength. Pro tip: if you can, do this workout on grass or a dirt trail to soften the blow.

When you run downhill, your quadriceps contract (eccentrically) to prevent your knees from buckling. At the same time, your knee bends slightly, stretching the quadriceps. The balancing of these forces results in eccentric contractions which recruit fewer muscle fibers, increasing the force required from those that are activated. It also results in more damage to the recruited fibers due to the increased force. This results in stronger quadriceps, better knee drive and a superhuman resistance to quad soreness… ok maybe not that last one but you should get less and less sore the more often you practice this.

When you start doing this workout, stick to four to five repeats of 60–100 meters on a moderately steep grade of 6 to 7 percent. Run at 85 percent maximum pace and take a 2 or 3-minute recovery between hills. After a while, you can increase to six to eight reps at 90 to 95 percent effort but don’t force it. Give your body time to get proficient and efficient at this one so you don’t wind up with bags of ice on your knees!

Convinced?

A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning looked at the connection between treadmill intervals at an incline and running economy. The researchers compared three groups of runners: one group that performed 4–6 high-intensity treadmill intervals for an average of 2 minutes and 16 seconds with no incline, one group that performed 10–14 30-second high-intensity intervals at a 10 percent incline, and a control group who continued fiddling around with their regular running routines. The researchers found that both interval groups similarly improved aspects of running economy during the six-week study.

Another study published just last year in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance had twenty well-trained runners perform an incremental treadmill test to determine aerobic and biomechanical measures, a series of jumps on a force plate to determine neuromuscular measures, and a 5-km time trial. They then performed six weeks of high-intensity uphill running intervals and repeated the same set of tests. In the end, they discovered that not only did running economy improve but the runners were also 2 percent faster, on average, in 5K time-trial performances.


As you can see, after only 6 weeks of running up and down hills, slowly, quickly, short and long can have a dramatic effect on your economy and performance. Combine this training protocol with the advice “slow down on the ascent, speed up on the descent” and you will be blowing past your competition on either side of the mountain.

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