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Hill Workouts for Runners: Let the Incline Add to your Power

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Most runners share a love-hate relationship with hill workouts. While some associate with the familiar burn running up and down a hill brings, others dread it like the plague. But even with myriads of runners shying away from hill running, the hills are your best friend when you’re trying build up your strength and the power in your legs. Hill workouts get counted as among the most running-specific resistance training. But despite being a guaranteed tool which will increase your speed and build your endurance, running hills can be a bit intimidating.

Hill workouts are of course great when you’re training for a hilly race but they are also helpful to incorporate into training for any kind of race since they focus on building your mileage while maintaining power and speed. Also, if you’re looking to lose a few pounds, hill workouts can really help you burn more calories than running on flat ground.

Hill Workouts: Like Track Workouts, But Better

what does hill workouts mean
Mastering the Heights of Hill Workouts (Source)

Hill workouts not only benefit a runner from a physiological point of view but they also help cadence, efficiency, posture, and improvement in form. There’s no way you can run uphill with a poor form. The uphill propulsion necessitates a runner to be on their toes with a slight lean towards the front from the ankles and an increase in cadence to enable running up the hill. Spending lesser time on the ground means a quicker movement of the feet which in turn mean you get up the hill much faster! Hill training provides a similar strength and speed benefit as a track workout would but without the unnecessary impact on the body, which is why it’ll help you get your body into shape, increase your power etc. all without the risk of injury.

Why Hill Training?

  • The best method of preparing for speed training.
  • Running hills helps develop leg muscles.
  • It teaches you how to keep up your stamina and sustain a steady rhythm.
  • It’s a good way to mix and match your training techniques.
  • Prevents injury by strengthening the main group of running muscles.

The Proper Technique for Hill Workouts

Once you’ve made up your mind to tackle the hills, there’s a correct way to going about it. You might be imagining yourself as a powerful runner, making it up to the top in full blast but you don’t want to be sprinting up and then claiming more exhaustion than you ought to. So below are a few ‘correct’ tips to help you with hill workouts:

  • Walk like you’re on flat ground: Maintain the same rhythm as you would when running on flat ground, and keep the same level of effort, so that you’re breathing isn’t in hard gasps. This means that you will be taking tiny steps, making believe that you’re barely moving a few inches. But since you’re maintaining the same level of effort you can plod along without bringing on the tiredness.
  • Lift those knees: You’ll need to pick up your foot higher to take the next step forward, all the while pushing off on the back foot. Maintaining a focus on high knees will help you maintain a strong form.
  • Run tall: Don’t look down or bend over/ lean forwards. Running tall means keeping your center of gravity over your feet, and it will help you to drive from your hips and lift your knees. If you feel yourself leaning forward or bending at the waist when you feel tired, go back to point one – take small steps.
  • Switch Focus: To divert your mind when you get tired, try focusing on moving your arms since your legs will automatically follow that movement. You can also consider angling a side of your hip toward the hill so that you’re running slightly sideways, and can alternate switching sides from time to time.

The hills will stop being intimidating when you get comfortable running them. With all of the running uphill benefits, don’t let that mental picture of the powerful runner disappear… Sometimes a mental boost is the biggest tip you need.

The Benefits of Hill Running

When you are hill running, you’re using your body weight as an opposition or a resistance against which you’re pushing, all the while making your driving muscles (from where the leg power is derived) to work harder than normal. Simply put – gravity works against you, when you’re running uphill which means that you’re going to be requiring more energy, putting in more effort to propel your body weight against gravity as you run up.

The following are the benefits of hill running:

  • Develops muscle elasticity and power
  • Upgraded turnover of feet leading to faster cadence
  • Improved speed for downhill running and evolves control and stabilization
  • Better neuromuscular fitness, which will enhance your running economy for all distances
  • Advances strength endurance
  • Enhances stride length and frequency
  • As there different types of hills you could train on, so are there different benefits you can gain from such running.

The Types of Hills

When you start your hill workout, you need to start small, then gradually increase the difficulty. To do that, you need to know how to differentiate an easy hill from a hard one. Here are the types of hills you need to know about:

Short Hills

Hill Workout small hill
Starting Out Small (Source)

Small hills are the ones which do not take more than 30 seconds to run up and bear an inclination between 5 – 15 degrees gradient. The energy source of the runner is completely anaerobic, and the technique should comprise of high nee lift and vigorous arm drive, hips kept high to maintain a posture denoting ‘running tall’ instead of leaning forward. Considering the session is anaerobic, your recovery time can be long, say a slow jog of around sixty to ninety seconds or a walk back down the hill.

Medium Hills

Hill Workout medium hill
The ‘Middle’ Ground (Source)

Medium hills are the ones which take between 30 – 90 seconds to run up. This is a good distance for a mid-distance runner as it blends the benefits of the short hills with the strain on local muscular endurance and the subjection to lactic acid. The energy source of the runner is a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic with a build-up in blood lactate as the runner goes up further. Emphasizing the style of this type of training is necessary. While leaning forward and scuttling uphill with a short stride works for a race, for training, it’s better to adopt a longer strider with a higher knee lift, run tall with your back upright and keep your hips pushed forwards. Recovery would be a slow jog to the base of the hill.

Long Hills

Hill Workout long hill
Here’s the Hard Mode (Source)

Long hills are the ones which take between 90 seconds – 3 minutes (plus). The energy source of the runner is mostly aerobic but when the steep parts of the hill call for hard running, there will be an accumulation of blood lactate. The major limiting factor will be the runner’s cardiovascular system, with also the existence of local muscular fatigue in the leg muscles and a bit in the abdominal muscles as well.

Long hills can be utilized in two ways: for a hard aerobic session in the pre-race/event season, OR for a hard-time trial session in the early stages of the race/event time.

Since the hills session is aerobic, not calling for as much power by stride as in the case of shorter hills, it’s not used much by mid-distance runners except to run a couple of time-trial runs. Long hills are especially great for road or cross country runners who are doing distances of 10,000 metres and above.

Mixed Hill

Hill Workout mixed hill
A Mixed Bag (Source)

Mixed hill running holds its major advantage of being able to accommodate the terrain the runner is running on. There are two benefits that arise with this type of hill run:

  • For race simulation which is a good way to incorporate rehearsing for the situations into the training, that the runner is likely to meet during the race.
  • For downhill running, often leading to strains and jarring. Performing repeated downhills isn’t advisable but try and practice to develop a more relaxed method of downhill running without the strain.

Mixed hill running can also boost a runner’s VO2 max. In order to get there, pick out a six-seven mile rise and fall type of a hilly course and start off the set by jogging at a modest pace. Slowly and steadily pick up the intensity of the pace as you course through the hills – run uniformly at a hard but not at super-fast speeds. The course should be leading the runner up and down hills almost constantly since the main aim is to not keep flat ground running to more than 25% of the workout.

Rough Terrain

Hill Workout rough terrain
Harder But Better (Source)

This terrain wouldn’t necessarily be included in a type of hill but the combinations that comprise of a rough terrain make for a special mention. It combines the advantage of running hills and going hard, say in the sand. Soft sand means the runner will need to work harder and increase leg speeds to keep going while reducing the risk of impact injuries to their legs. The effect would be the same as hill running, but due to the added difficulty levels, the distance could be reduced.

Types of Hill Workouts

Now that you know your hill types, let’s move on to the types of hill workouts.

Hill Sprints

Hill Workout Hill Sprints
Sprint it Out (Source)

Hill Sprints are a support or an additional type of workout, very similar to form drills or strides. These can be included as part of your easy days and still see the effect without wearing out your body too much. Technically these should be done on a five to ten percent incline, but a hill which gets you panting without any alteration to your form would suffice.

A hill sprint workout can be introduced at any point in your training and are ideal for runners of any level. Gradually introduce a sprints workout as eight seconds uphill and 60 – 90 seconds recovery, repeated about twice, every once or twice a week.

Hill Repeats

Hill Workout Hill Repeats
Up and Down... and Up Again! (Source)

Hill Repeats as could be understood from the name is technically just running up a hill while utilizing as much effort as possible, and then jogging back down to again repeat the same. Hill repeats should be ideally done on a ten to fifteen percent incline – something which isn’t too steep and won’t stop you from developing a good rhythm, but nothing easy either or you’ll miss out on the benefits.

This workout will require you to put in the effort and pull in power, such that when you’re almost atop your legs should feel heavy and your breathing should be laboured – a good gauge of the effort you’re introducing in your repeats. Once you’re done, cool down with some easy running easy for at least a mile.

Hill Bounds

Hill Workout Hill Bounds
Bound to Make You Stronger (Source)

Hill Bounds will enable you to enhance your explosiveness, by increasing your capability to generate forward momentum from a fixed position. Ideally, a hill with a six to seven percent incline is decent for this workout. Stretch out your lead foot as you would for a sprint but instead of a normal stride, drive your foot into the ground and detonate into a leap, then bring your alternate knee high up to strike with the foot for the next ‘bound’. Each set should comprise of ten repetitions for each leg. Incorporate at least six sets.

Downhill Running

Hill Workout Downhill Running
Take it Down a Notch (Source)

It is necessary to slowly incorporate downhill running since aggressive racing could prevent you from training comfortably again for a week or more or could even lead to injury. A hill with a six to ten percent incline or a slope that will take a couple of minutes to descend would be ideal for this workout.

Alternatives for Hill Workouts

Hill Workout stairs as alternative
Not the Best, But Good Enough (Source)

There won’t be a suitable option that can take the place of running up the hill and down, but you could opt for stairs. You won’t be able to adjust your stride and it won’t be giving you the same advantages, but at least you’ll be working out your legs and lungs.

Another backup could be the treadmill, but there’s no way you’re going to get the downhill running workout.

Tips for Hill Workouts

Here are some useful tips that will help you optimize your training while doing hill workouts:

  • Start off with softer surfaces such a dirt road or grass and steer clear away from technical or rocky trails.
  • Begin your descent at a controlled and comfortable pace, all the while keeping your feet beneath you.
  • Ensure that your quads and glutes are absorbing the impact instead of your knees.
  • Turn your ‘brakes’ off to retain the jarring to its minimum.
  • Walk or slowly jog back to the top for recovery.
  • Every downhill repeat you do should be started after you’re fairly rested since you’re working on technique in this workout.

Summing Up

Hill Workout Inspiration
Run the Run (Source)

Mostly hill workouts come in as a once a week deal in running programs, in the case of advanced runners, maybe even twice a week, since they are intensive workouts which are stress-inducing to the body. Remember to stick to your regular running plan, but don’t make the mistake of scheduling a big run or a too hectic workout on the day before or the day after the hill workout, since it’s likely that the body won’t have enough time to recover, and could play a part in setting the body up for an injury. All said and done, hill workouts are the most valuable training tool if you want to be a powerful runner!

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