Even if you are not a glutton for punishment who likes to push yourself up the neighbourhood hill or working toward a race with a significant uphill section, hill training should be an integral part of your training programme. By understanding and applying the science of hill running, you can improve your training program to maximize the benefits of this low-impact, high-benefit type of workout.
Why Hill Training Works
Hill training works because it makes you stronger. Just like the skinny kid at the gym who bulks up by putting additional plates on the bar with each successive workout, running on an incline forces you to lift a heavier load. By taking advantage of your favourite training partner – gravity – you can create a situation that is similar to running while carrying a load, which will increase your muscle strength and make your body weight easier for you to move. Hill running is a low impact form of training. The strength benefits of hill training come without the strain on your muscles and joints that would occur if you were trying to run while carrying a heavy load.
What the Research Tells Us
Exercise science tells us that when you start to run up a hill you are engaging a different energy system and muscle group than you use on the flats. As long as you maintain a reasonable pace, hill climbing will require the kind of force that is generated by your Type II muscle fibres and your anaerobic energy system. These are the twin engines that get involved when you sprint, jump or do heavy lifting. Type II muscles exert more power but they also burn glucose faster and produce lactic acid – the waste product that makes your muscles burn during intense workouts. By engaging your type II muscles, you are working the full spectrum of your muscle fibres. This develops your total muscle strength and prepares your body for situations when you have to pick up the pace – like the final kick when the finish line comes into sight.
To get the most out of your hill training focus on speed and form. The benefits of training on an incline come from pushing your body to exert more mechanical energy. This can only happen if you maintain your pace. Doing your best impression of the little engine that could isn't going to cut it. You need to run up the hills at a speed that is in the same range as your comfortable running speed on flat ground. Ideally, you will run at your normal pace for the first 2/3 of the hill and then increase your effort to a more intense pace during the final section when the burning sensation begins in your legs.
It is also important to maintain proper form. You can do this by shortening your strides slightly while increasing your cadence. Concentrate on driving your knees upward and extending fully through the drive/support leg while maintain your momentum. An evaluation of kinetics during uphill running demonstrated that the hip extensor muscles, which are not as active during level running, are extensively used during incline running1 so it is critical that you lift your knees to generate sufficient force.
Keep in mind that it's not ideal for you to look at the ground in front of your feet. If you can keep your chest, eyes and head up by looking ahead of you – maybe even at the top of the hill - you will eliminate neck strain and ensure that your posture is optimal. This will ensure that you do not reduce your energy expenditure and make the hill running more efficient.
Improve Your Performance
Here's a quick summary of the key ideas about hill training that you need to keep in mind:
- Use hill workouts as part of your base training program when you are adding volume and building up your speed
- Avoid doing hills in the final few weeks of your preparation for a race
- Use a variety of hills to challenge your muscles – long, gentle slopes one week and short, steep efforts another.
- Take short strides and keep your cadence (stride rate) up.
- Focus on driving your knees upward
- Make sure you don't brake when your foot lands so that you can maintain momentum. To do this, try planting your feet below your hips.
- Run at your normal pace for the first portion of the hills and pick it up as you approach the top
- Keep your eyes, head and chest up to avoid losing your form
Nutrition and Psychology
In terms of nutrition and refueling, you should think of a hill workout as a session of strength training. A good post workout snack/meal of carbohydrates will also help replenish the muscle glycogen and promote faster recovery. In particular, your body will need protein to build new muscle fibres and plenty of water to process the lactic acid that is produced. You will also need to give the muscles time to recover by avoiding additional leg strengthening exercises in the subsequent days.
Mentally, the focus required for hill training is very different than running on flats because you have to concentrate on maintaining your pace and form despite muscle soreness and an intense desire to stop and walk. Fortunately, the benefits of this low-impact and high-benefit form of training will motivate you to keep going. Not to mention the amazing feeling you will get when you get to the top, look back and say "I did it."
Roberts TJ, and Belliveau RA. (2005). Sources of mechanical power for uphill running in humans. Journal of Experimental Biology 205: 1963-1970.
Greg Wells Ph.D. (www.drgregwells.com, @drgregwells) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the Faculties of Medicine and Kinesiology. He was the sport science analyst for the Olympic Broadcast Consortium during the 2010 & 2012 Games, and is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes. Jessica Caterini is a member of the Human Physiology Research Unit in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto.