If you had to power your own house to keep the heat on during the chilly winter, nothing would generate power like some good old fashioned hill running. The list of reasons why hill running is good for you is a long and full one. It is efficient, it is safe, it is hard, it automatically corrects your form, and it can facilitate easy, low stress endurance running to absolute max fitness and speed.
In this article we will explore the technical side of running and make our way to the speed. Then, at the end of this article, you’ll find three very effective and very different hill workouts.
Hills for Form
Running uphill is a great way to learn by feeling some important concepts in good running technique. Due to the incline, you have to step up a tad each step, and thus you have to completely extend the retreating leg instead of just “short striding” it. By exaggerating the extension in your back leg you are working more of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves, etc.) which are critical muscles to have involved in every running stride.
Hills also force you to keep your chest forwards which creates momentum using gravity to your benefit, and also forces arm drive to keep your timing and rhythm. It’s nearly impossible to run uphill with your feet extended beyond your chest, which is a terrible habit to develop.
Hills for Free-Fitness and Health
Hills are free-fitness because, despite running hard uphill, the corresponding muscular and physical damage is minimal when compared to running on a flat surface or a track. Since its slightly less impact per stride, it brings the overall stress down on your body. So in short, you can train pretty hard and pretty often on hills. In contrast, doing hard, intense repeats on a track is not something that many athletes can do on a regular basis.
Hills also keep muscles in the legs and hips extremely active, strong, and mobile through the variety of the terrain. The body likes variety and hill workouts deliver that without much effort.
Hills for Pacing
Athletes love to start flat races way too hard, and through learning the pacing of hill repeats an athlete can truly improve their internal pacing governor. Hills teach an important course management technique of shifting the load of the work. Meaning going uphill you will tax your cardiopulmonary system more and going downhill you will tax your nervous and muscular system more. So similar to biking, it’s very useful to learn how to recover each of those systems while running a race or workout. You can learn to keep speed high but recover your system when running downhill, conversely how you can actually relax and sort of just grind out an uphill without completely compromising yourself.
Hills for Pure Speed
It’s pretty clear that hills are the purest way to bring you to the absolute max of your physiological abilities. That is why the true VO2max tests are all done on an increasing incline. You can run longer and harder at a high HR with less muscular damage. You will run those efforts with great form, and then when you run the same effort on a flat surface you will feel like you’re floating. If you try to run VO2 intensity on a flat surface you will start to run (literally) into some problems like maintaining the speed with good form, dealing with the very intense impact, and just the simple physical strength to keep yourself up at that intensity. You can last much longer on a hill at those efforts and then, consequently, run your flat reps in better form than if you did the whole workout flat.
Three Differing, Yet Effective Hill Workouts
Form Blasters: This is a good one that is more for neuromuscular training on good form carrying into smooth tempo running. This could be on a steeper incline (5-8%)
2 Rounds of:
- 6 x 30 sec FAST with high leg speed and power. Push off the big toe and keep the arms ‘pumping back’ while standing tall.
Easy jog downhill between each.
- 10-12 min easy running then repeat the round.
Endurance Pacing: This is a smoother run that is forcing good form, smooth running style, and the pacing you’d want in some more endurance driven runs. This would ideally be on smoother incline (3-5%)
- 45 mins Z2 running. Ideally over varied hilly terrain.
- 6 x 2 min Z4 effort focused on RPE and HR, not pace. This is a strong but managed effort. 1-2 min returning to the bottom of the hill with good foot speed, and extend into 2 min easy Z1/Z2 running before starting the next interval.
Speed Workout: This is a nasty one. The idea is doing 2 rounds of 30-35 second repeats with some solid rest. Your legs and system will feel the challenge from the first round, but you will also notice the very strong, solid feeling in going through the last ones on the flats.
- 10 x :30-:35 seconds STRONG UPHILL run (ideally 4-6%). Focus on form, arm-drive, and lifting the knees. Jog down and give a full 60s rest each rep.
- 10-12 minutes easy to flush the legs.
- 10 x 200m Flat and Fast! Carry over the form from the hills. 200m easy jog or 60s rest each rep.