Running uphill pits you against the laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton. You’re fighting against gravity, which places greater loads on your body than running on the flat and thereby extracts a more powerful training effect. It’s a very useful method of training to build strength, power and top-end aerobic conditioning. It also hurts a lot and, for some reason, endurance athletes seem to find a bit of self-inflicted torture attractive, so it ticks that box as well.
Also, races are often decided at critical points where something allows stronger athletes to exert their influence over weaker opponents. Frequently these critical points are on hills (think of the hill on the Athens Olympic triathlon route, the undulations in Central Park at the end of the New York Marathon or the mountains in the Tour de France).
Being able to put your rivals under pressure when the road tilts up requires a degree of specific preparation and practice.
What are the key benefits of running up hills?
Increased strength and power in your legs This is due to the extra forces that muscles are required to exert as you drag your carcass skywards. You’re effectively lifting weights with each stride and, as the movement patterns are very specific to your ‘normal’ running style, the strength gains are instantly transferable. In muscular terms the quadriceps, calf muscles and hip flexors in particular are getting the most benefits from your hill training. The heavier you are, the greater the effect too, but that’s not an excuse for another trip to the burger van.
Improved VO2max The high-intensity and massive cardiovascular demand of hill running has the potential to increase your overall aerobic engine size – your VO2max. This allows more headroom when running at lower intensities and greater speed when working flat out, both of which will lead to improvements in your overall competitive performance.
Increased speed on the flat Besides making you specifically better at running up hills, you can use gradients to improve your speed on the flat, too. Running at pace up a slight incline encourages many of the same adaptations in your body that very fast running on the flat does, without the same risk of injury. The speed of movement is much lower so the risk of pulling muscles is reduced but the gradient exerts a similar level of stress, which makes the overall effect comparable.
Equally, running downhill on a slight slope trains your neuromuscular system to cope with moving at faster speeds without placing huge stresses on the rest of your body so another effect is achieved.
Mental toughness and release of aggression Running uphill is hard. Sometimes training hard is as much about the mental conditioning as the physical, and hills never let you off the hook. You need determination and resilience to push out a set of hard hill reps and the satisfaction from a good session is well warranted.
Also, if you want to unleash some aggression, sprinting up and down hills is a great outlet – it’s safer than road rage and more productive than just kicking the cat. Take a look at the ‘Hill training sessions’ section below for some ideas of great gradient-based workouts.
How should I train for hill running?
Before you go charging off to run up the nearest hill, it’s well worth noting that hill training comes with a bit of a health warning. It places increased stresses on all parts of your body, which makes its potential benefits huge but its risks greater than steady running. Ideally, you should have a reasonable amount of run mileage under your belt before getting into this and, if in doubt, start on gentler slopes rather than heading to Ben Nevis for your first session.
You can slot hill running into a training programme at many different points. It’s useful as part of a conditioning phase through the winter (a long hilly run is probably the best idea) to introduce your body to some strength and interval work without it being too aggressive or measured. Simply switching your long run to hilly terrain is the easiest way to achieve this and, as you get fitter, you can increase the number of hills, length of the run or pace to keep it progressive.
After some weeks of long runs, hill reps (such as the long, gradual ones detailed above) are a pre-cursor to prepare your body for more specific speed work in the springtime. Varying the length of reps and gradually reducing the gradient so that the relative speeds increase eases your body into running full tilt and maintains the cardiovascular stress at the required level.
Some short, fast hill reps are a good idea before competitions if the racing is going to take place on hilly terrain. Shorter efforts and steeper hills are great for this but having plenty of recovery between reps and not overdoing it is essential, as this can be destructive if you take it too far. “Better safe than sorry” is a good cliché to keep in mind during this phase, as minimising the risk of injury and overtiredness is critical.
The downhill running reps can be used at any point in the year to increase efficiency of movement and leg speed. I like to do some the day or two before a running race to fine tune my nervous system and feel lively going into the event. A pre-race set would constitute just 5-8 progressive reps over 20-30secs with a slow walk back up. It feels exhilarating rather than tiring and should be done with an emphasis on holding good form.
Alternatively, a set of 8-12 reps as a stand-alone session to improve your leg turnover is valid any time of the year if you feel it will benefit your ability to run smoothly and faster.
How can I train for hill running if I don’t have any hills nearby?
What if you struggle to find hills around where you normally train but want to try to gain some of the benefits of the workouts outlined above? Well, you could always buy a little place in the Alps and go out there to get the miles in. However, this may not be an option if all of your capital is tied up in carbon-fibre bikes and expensive wetsuits.
Many treadmills have a gradient setting that allows you to simulate a hilly course. This is a reasonable alternative but is reliant on the treadmill going fast enough to push you on the hard reps and change speed quickly enough to vary the intensity. But if you find the treadmill uninspiring you can still get out and use natural features even if you live on a floodplain.
Running up stairs in the style of ‘Rocky’ can be a tough exercise and transfer many similar benefits to running uphill. Usually such sessions are confined to short, sharp bursts up the steps of a stadium or similar. If the steps are quite tall you can develop great power in quads and calves doing this. However, the design and dimensions of the steps may restrict your stride length, which means you’re developing strength in a very specific way that may not be 100 per cent transferable to your running. One thing is for sure, though: a group step running session every now and again is great fun in the winter and offers a break from the same old sessions. Try to run down the steps in a controlled way as tripping is a danger when your legs get a bit shaky.
Other man-made alternatives to hills exist in geographically flat areas. Flyovers and bridges often provide a gradient where naturally there isn’t one. I trained in Holland once and the only gradient for miles around was on a road that was raised up and over a canal. All the local runners and cyclists used to do reps going up and over the ‘hill’, sometimes in single runs and sometimes double or triple efforts. If you look hard enough there is often a way.
How can i measure my hill sessions?
You can quantify just how hilly any run you do is by working out your total ascent in the session. This gives you a way of comparing sessions above and beyond the normal time and distance measures, which can be misleading and underestimate the effects of a route on very aggressive terrain.
Measuring the altitude gain in real time is possible using a GPS system. If you love your gadgets and stats then this is great, but it’s quite expensive.You can also calculate the total ascent in a run by counting the contour lines on maps. This is an accurate way to do it if you know your exact route and is much cheaper than the GPS. That said, if you’re doing this after every training session, maybe you have too much time on your hands? Some internet mapping services, such as www.mapmyrun.com, also allow you to plot a route on a virtual map and work out the altitude changes, which is obviously a very cost effective way of doing it.
However you choose to work it out, after a while you’ll get an idea of the ‘worth’ or intensity of a hilly run based on pace, distance and ascent. This information will help you to plan your training and necessary recovery more effectively.
Hill running is a potent training method that will help you build strength, power and speed if used correctly. It’s slightly more risky than steady running so should be attempted in a gentle and progressive manner. It can be integrated into your plan for general strength gains or to prepare for specific events. It’s also very tough and rewarding as you have your own battle with nature, getting out there to conquer your local summit, sometimes just because (in the words of Sir Edmund Hiliary) “it’s there”.
Hill training sessions
A ‘hill’ constitutes anything from a slight gradient to a black ski run. When you’re deciding what kind of hill training to undertake, you have to work back from the benefits you’re seeking. If it’s bursts of raw power for sprint racing and a devastating kick then short, steep efforts that place a great emphasis on muscular power are on the menu. If it’s strength endurance then longer, shallower hills are more appropriate. You’ll find a few different sessions below that will come in useful for these benefits – or even if you have nothing better to do:
Long hilly run
This is your typical aerobic endurance run of 45min to 2hrs but done over hilly terrain. You can work the hills a little harder than the rest of the run to emphasise the benefits. Practise working hard up and over the tops for a couple of hundred metres during a long run as it’s at these points that breakaways are often made in races. The nature of the terrain largely dictates the exact benefits you’ll gain but it’ll mainly be strength endurance and the ability to cope with and use hills when racing.
Legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard was a great advocate of long hilly runs. He had a famous 22 miler in New Zealand called the Waitatarua, described by Peter Snell as “soul searing”. In fact, the first time Snell tried it, it reduced him to tears… but ultimately helped to shape him into an Olympic 800m champion.
Hilly runs tend to produce a heart-rate graph similar to that of an interval or fartlek session, which goes some way to explaining why such sessions are so useful.
Short, steep hill repeats
After a good warm-up, find a steep hill (one that requires a big effort to run up at any speed – think cheese-rolling gradients) and takes around 30secs to cover at a hard effort. Grassy or off-road sections are preferred to relieve the pounding on your legs. Run up the hill at the maximum pace you feel that you can sustain for the number of reps you’ll be completing and jog down very slowly as a recovery.
As the session progresses, allow more recovery time to complete the reps at the same pace if you need it as it’s the quality of the intervals that count in this sort of set. Aim to start with 8-10 reps and build to around 20 over several weeks.
This session is good for developing power and sprint speed or preparing for races where the hills are steep and aggressive in nature. Your quads in particular do a lot of work on steeper hills so they’ll be hit hard by this set. A sick bucket at the top of the hill is an optional extra if you’re keen on pushing very hard. Be careful to warm up delicate calf muscles and Achilles tendons before a set like this, as being too aggressive too soon can result in a sharp tearing feeling and several weeks of hell for your family while you’re grumpily off run training with a popped calf.
Long, gradual uphill reps
Once again, after a decent warm-up, find a hill that’s relatively shallow in gradient (one you could roll down on a bike at a steady speed, without braking) that takes 2-3mins to run up. Run up the hill hard and jog back down slowly to recover. Aim to perform 6-12 reps depending on your fitness level and how much you like pain.
This type of session gives you a great VO2 max workout and builds strength endurance in your legs. It’s like doing fast pace 800m or 1km reps on the track but with the emphasis shifted towards strength instead of speed.
Ideally done on a gradual grassy slope (such as a playing field), downhill running reps are an often-ignored session. Limb speed can be a limiting factor in racing, especially for a lot of triathletes with legs heavily muscled from miles of cycling.
Running downhill teases extra speed and turnover out of the pins without requiring flat out aerobic efforts. On grass the session is much less damaging to shins and knees that often complain when subjected to similar sessions on the road. A stretch of 200m or so is ideal. Work through a set of 8-12 reps with each one building in pace to reduce the injury risk.
Fell runners are renowned as kings of downhill running because it’s a critical part of their racing. “Brakes off, brains off” is a common philosophy that leads to some spectacular speeds and equally spectacular falls (the kind that make it onto TV shows called ‘World’s Most Painful Sporting Disasters 4’). In fact, in 1910 Ernest Dalzell won the Burnsall fell race in North Yorkshire covering the last 9/10ths of a mile down a steep and treacherous slope at an average speed of 21mph (10.7sec per 100m)! A gentleman by the name of H Mortimer Batten wrote in the following years race programme that: “No-one would have ever credited that the legs of anything but a deer could perform some terrific leaps and bounds.” So when you’re doing your downhill sessions, imagine yourself bounding along like a deer.
NOTE: downhill running relies heavily on eccentric muscular contractions (muscles working while lengthening), which can be very damaging to the fibres. This is why it causes muscle soreness similar to that inflicted by medieval torture. The best way to minimise it is to be progressive and gentle in the way that you introduce downhill running to your programme.
Use soft surfaces and increase the number and speed of reps over several weeks. If you’re patient and overload your body subtly, it’ll adapt nicely and you’ll find yourself able to walk normally the day after a session rather than like Herman Munster.
Andy Blow is a sports scientist, multiple Top 10 Ironman finisher and a member of the GB long-distance squad