Hill Running and Everything About It

Runner’s World have all the resources a runner would need about anything. One that catches my fancy is hill running. Let me highlight what I’ve read:

It hurts.

Why does hill running hurt so much? In part, because it takes more work. “You have to recruit more muscle fibers to get yourself up the hill, which causes those muscles to fatigue faster,” says Carwyn Sharp, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Plus, when you’re running on an incline, there’s a shorter distance for your foot to fall before it hits the ground. That translates into less of an energy boost from the tendons, which you normally get when running on a flat surface, says Paul DeVita, Ph.D., a biomechanist at East Carolina University.

On the up side, hitting hills is hugely beneficial to runners. “Do it week after week, and your body begins to adapt to the stresses,” says Sharp. “In other words, it gets stronger.”

Running hills doesn’t have to mean repeats,” says Lt. Colonel Liam Collins, assistant track and cross-country coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “The trick is to make it enjoyable.”

Hit the hills with perfect form

Increase your armswing as if you’re pulling yourself quickly up a rope, says Indiviglia.

As you run up, think about pressing your hips into the hill to avoid bending at the waist.

This will help increase your stride rate and further help you maintain good posture.

Push off your toes to create an upward lift that will help propel you forward.

Just 10 Seconds

That’s all the time it takes to become a faster runner. Too good to be true? Not according to Brad Hudson, the coach of such distance stars as Dathan Ritzenhein and Jorge Torres. All you have to do is run those 10 seconds uphill–as fast as you can. “There’s nothing better for developing speed and muscle power,” says Hudson.

When Hudson, a 1991 and ’93 world championship competitor in the marathon, started coaching a few years back, he looked at successful programs and found they all had one thing in common: hills. And as he sifted through research, he noted that even a small amount of hill work could yield big results: a jump in leg strength, running economy–how efficiently your body uses oxygen–and aerobic capacity. “I saw the science, and then I saw the results in my athletes,” says Hudson.

Hit the hill, but make it fast and short, and you get the maximum amount of training effect with the minimum amount of injury risk. “The best way to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers is to run at max intensity,” says Hudson. “The best way to build leg strength is hill running. So we run all-out up a steep hill. But we keep it to 10 seconds to avoid producing lactate and becoming fatigued.” Running no more than 10-second repeats also reduces injury risk by limiting your fast-running time. And hills by their nature lessen the risk of injury because the slope shortens the distance you have to “fall” or land, reducing impact. “Studies of sprinting uphill show that the muscles are in constant ‘overload’ and the nervous system is firing hard,” says Hudson. “It’s the same speed benefit as track sprints, but safer.”

The fast pace builds speed, but it’s the hill that provides the strength benefit. Running up an incline places the same demand on your muscles as weight training–your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves must “lift” you up the slope–but they’re more specific to running. And just as with plyometrics (jump drills), the “explosive” action of uphill sprints improves elasticity in your muscles and tendons, which allows you to spring quickly into action after landing.

Learn How

>>When running downhill, instead of landing each stride on the heel, focus on the feeling of naturally gliding downhill–almost in a free fall–landing evenly across the midfoot.

Charge the Hill

Hill training is almost as effective in building aerobic power as track interval training,” says Phelan. “And it’s far more effective in building strength.” Indeed, running uphill strengthens your hamstrings, calves, glutes, hip flexors, and Achilles tendons more than flat running, and it uses more upper-body muscles. “Hill running is resistance training for runners,” says Phelan, “because you’re fighting the resistance of the slope. It is extremely demanding at first because you work muscles that you don’t use often.”

Research backs Phelan up. A study co-authored by Mark Sloniger, Ph.D., an exercise scientist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, found that more and different muscles are used in uphill running than flat running. “More force is required for uphill running, especially from the quadriceps,” says Sloniger, “so more muscle fibers are recruited. A primary goal of any training is to utilize as many muscle fibers as possible so that adaptations can occur to make them more efficient.”

And the benefits of hill running don’t stop with your muscles. Sloniger points out that uphill running is also superior to flat running (if you maintain the same pace) in increasing your calorie burn, boosting your aerobic and anaerobic capabilities (which make running a given pace easier), and preparing you for hilly races.

Hill charges require concentration,” says Phelan, “which is good practice for the focus you need in a race.” Frances McKissick, 42, a Flagpole regular for eight years, agrees: “After I started doing Flagpole, I started seeing personal bests. If you push yourself up a hill in training, it becomes easier to do it in a race.”

During your hill workouts, jog down after each charge, which will hasten your recovery better than walking by pumping more blood through your hard-working muscles. But make sure it’s a slow jog. “The most common mistake runners make is to run too quickly down the hill,” says Phelan. “This doesn’t allow your legs or cardio system to adequately recover, and it pounds your body harder.”


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