Hill running is like a rollercoaster ride for your body – it may feel like torture at first, but once you conquer it, the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment are unmatched.
It’s a test of your physical and mental limits, and if you can push through the pain, you’ll emerge stronger and more resilient.
Plus, incorporating hill training into your workouts can improve your overall running performance, including speed, endurance, and muscle strength.
It’s no wonder that some of the most iconic races in the world, such as the Boston Marathon, feature notorious hills that challenge even the most seasoned runners. S
o, instead of shying away from the hills, embrace them as a worthy opponent that will make you a better runner.
In this article, we’ll cover everything from proper hill running form to specific workouts to help you conquer any hill that comes your way. So, strap on your shoes, and let’s get started!
The Benefits of Hill Running
Running uphill is one of the most challenging and rewarding exercises a runner can do.
Research has shown that hill running can increase leg-muscle power, boost fitness, and engage the muscles of the core, lower body, and arms in ways that flat-surface running cannot.
When you run uphill, you lift your knees higher, drive your arms more forcefully, and push off from your toes, strengthening almost every muscle in your body.
Plus, the intense nature of hill workouts can also increase your VO2 max and endurance level, making you a stronger, faster, and better runner overall.
Let’s dive deeper into some of the benefits.
Improved running economy
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that running uphill at a moderate intensity (around 70% of VO2 max) can improve running economy, or the amount of oxygen consumed while running at a given pace. This can translate to improved performance in flat and rolling terrain. (Millet et al., 2002)
Increased muscular strength and power
Running uphill requires more muscular force and power than running on flat terrain, which can help build strength and power in the muscles of the lower body. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that running uphill at a 10% grade resulted in significant improvements in lower body power and sprint performance in trained runners.
Reduced risk of injury
Running uphill can help improve overall running form and reduce the impact on the joints, which may help reduce the risk of injury. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that uphill running can improve foot strike pattern, reduce stride length, and decrease ground reaction forces, all of which may help reduce the risk of overuse injuries. (Giandolini et al., 2013)
Mental and emotional benefits
Hill running can also provide a boost in mood and mental clarity, as well as a sense of accomplishment and confidence. A study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that engaging in challenging physical activities like hill running can lead to a greater sense of self-efficacy and psychological well-being. (Bandura et al., 1985).
Studies have shown that hill running can provide not only physical but also psychological benefits.
For example, research has found that regular exercise, such as hill running, can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is like a natural antidepressant, releasing endorphins that lift the mood and improve overall well-being.
Meditation In Motion
Hill running can also be a form of mindfulness practice. Like meditation, it allows you to be fully present in the moment, focusing on your breath and the physical sensations of running uphill. This mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety, allowing you to feel more centered and focused.
Hill running can also be a social activity, providing opportunities to connect with other runners and form supportive communities. It is like climbing a mountain with friends, with everyone encouraging each other along the way. This social connection can have a positive impact on mental health and overall well-being.
Hill Running Is Hard
Before you start running up every hill you see, a word of caution: hill training is tough. To avoid injury, it’s essential to build a solid base of endurance and strength before taking on the hills. Hill training is intensity to the extreme, and it’s recommended to do no more than once per week, especially if you’re a beginner.
But don’t let that scare you away from the hills.
With a little practice, you’ll be conquering those inclines with ease and reaping the rewards of stronger muscles, better endurance, and a sense of accomplishment that only comes from pushing your limits. So, lace up your shoes and get ready to climb to new heights!
How to Conquer Hill Running
If you’re a runner, you know that hills can be your best friend or your worst enemy. For some, the mere thought of running uphill brings dread and a sense of defeat. But what if we told you that hill running could be the secret to unlocking your full potential as a runner?
Research shows that hill running not only improves leg muscle power and cardiovascular endurance but also engages muscles in the core, lower body, and arms in unique ways. Moreover, studies have shown that hill training can lead to improvements in running economy, VO2 max, and lactate threshold. So, how can you make the most of hill training without risking injury or burning out?
Find the Right Hill
When it comes to hill running, start with the basics. Look for a hill that is runnable, not too long, and not too steep. A hill between 100 to 200 meters long with an incline of three to five percent is ideal for beginners. If you don’t have access to hills, don’t worry. You can simulate hill training by adjusting the incline on a treadmill between four to six percent.
Warm-up and Cool-down
Before any workout, it’s crucial to warm up your muscles and joints. Hill training can put a lot of stress on your body, so it’s essential to perform a dynamic warm-up to prepare yourself. Spend five to ten minutes jogging slowly before reaching the hill. Incorporate dynamic stretches such as lunges, leg swings, and butt kicks to increase your range of motion and flexibility. After your hill workout, cool down with a light jog and perform static stretches to reduce muscle soreness and stiffness.
Start Small – The Ideal Session
If you’re a hill running newbie, start small. Begin with shorter hills that have a gentle incline and gradually build up to steeper and more challenging hills. Start with a jog for 5 to 10 minutes on a flat surface to warm up, then run up the hill at an easy and sustainable pace for 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat the sequence for 15 to 20 minutes or for as long as you feel comfortable.
4. Control Your Body
Running hills efficiently requires a good rhythm. Don’t let the hill take control over your pace; instead, aim for an equal effort to save your energy for the rest of the workout. Remember, let the hill slow you down, but keep an even effort throughout.
5. When to Start
It’s essential to build a solid base before attempting any hill training. Train at least three to four days a week, averaging 14 to 16 miles per week, and do not attempt hill training until you have done at least two to three months of base-building running. Once you’ve built your base, add one hill workout to your weekly plan.
When it’s time to start your hill workout, begin with a 5 to 10-minute jog on a flat surface to warm up your muscles. Then, choose a mildly inclined hill of around 100 to 150 meters long to run up. Aim for a 5K effort pace, challenging yourself while still maintaining proper form.
The Exact Pace
It’s important to find the right pace for your hill workout, around 70 to 80 percent of your maximum power. Don’t push yourself too hard too soon, and stick to a 15-minute session for your first time. And always remember to build up your endurance first by running 3 to 4 days a week, averaging 14 to 16 miles per week, before adding hill workouts to your routine.
7. The Very First Few Steps
After the warm-up, begin at the bottom of a mildly inclined hill roughly 100 to 150 meters long.
I’d recommend running up the hill at a 5K effort pace.
Ideally, you should be able to run up your chosen hill while keeping the same effort level that you were putting when running on flat surfaces.
Of course, feel free to challenge yourself up the hill, but don’t let your form break down.
8. The Uphill Form
A common mistake many make when tackling a hill is bad form.
Luckily, proper technique is not rocket science. It’s something you can learn with awareness and practice.
Here are a few tips to help point you in the right direction.
- The proper alignment. Keep your hips, chest, and head perpendicular to an imaginary horizontal line. Your body should remain upright both up and down the hill. Lean in slightly from the hips, but do not stoop when going up the hill—that’s a common mistake many make on the uphill.
- The head. Do not stare at your feet, nor look way up the top of the hill. Keep your chest and head up with your eyes gazing directly ahead of you, roughly 10 to 20 feet in front of you. This is especially the case if you’re running up a steep and long hill.
- The right posture. Engage your core muscles, keep your back straight and chest out, and hold your head up. This should open your airways, allowing for maximum oxygen delivery—Oh trust me, you are going to need all the oxygen you can get.
- The arms. Keep your arms bent at a 90-degree angle. They should be moving forward and backward, rotating at the shoulder, not side to side.
- Arm swings. Swing your elbows backward from your shoulder to generate enough momentum to help power up the hill. Imagine you’re punching someone in front of you with an uppercut. This might seem exaggerated, but it works.
- Stride rate. As you go up, shorten your stride instead of extending it as if trying to power up the hill. The feet should be kept low to the ground the entire time. This can also help keep you in a more upright position.
9. The Downhill Technique
As you reach the top of the hill, you take a deep breath and take a moment to savor the view. Your heart is racing, and your legs are tingling with excitement. You know that the downhill stretch is next, and you can’t wait to let gravity carry you downward.
But wait, before you rush down the hill like a bolt of lightning, you need to master the proper downhill technique. Running downhill might seem like a breeze, but it can be just as challenging as running uphill and even more dangerous.
According to research, downhill running can put a lot of strain on your muscles, joints, and bones. The constant braking effect of your feet hitting the ground can lead to knee pain, shin splints, and other injuries. So, to avoid these issues and maximize your performance, you need to develop the right form.
Firstly, avoid overstriding at all costs. Let gravity do its job, and focus on taking short and quick steps, increasing your stride rate. This will help you maintain control and speed without putting unnecessary pressure on your legs.
Additionally, focus on landing on your forefoot, not your heels. Landing on your heels creates a braking effect, which slows you down and puts extra stress on your body. Instead, land as lightly as possible on the mid to forefoot, and avoid pounding the ground. This will help you maintain your speed and avoid unnecessary pain.
Finally, try to keep your stride turnover and effort consistent with the rest of your workout. Don’t rush downhill, but also don’t let yourself get out of control. Maintain a comfortable pace that allows you to enjoy the thrill of running downhill while also preserving your body.
The Five Hill Workouts Runners Should Do
Here are five different types of hill workouts that you can try. Each workout has its own unique benefits, and by incorporating them into your routine, you can become a stronger, more efficient runner.
1. Short Hills
First up, we have the short hills. Don’t let the name fool you—these hills might be small, but they pack a powerful punch. Short hills are typically 50 to 200 feet in length and should take no more than 30 seconds to run up. With an inclination of 5 to 15 percent grade, short hill sprints require maximum effort and a 9-10 rating on the rate of perceived exertion scale.
But don’t be intimidated—these explosive hill sprints tap into all three types of muscle fibers and can improve your maximal stroke volume, making your cardiovascular system more efficient. Short hill workouts are perfect for developing explosive strength that’s essential for short-distance or middle-distance running.
So how do you execute a short hill workout? Start with a thorough warm-up of at least 5 minutes, then find a steep hill and sprint up it as fast as you can, recovering on the way down. Focus on your running technique with a powerful push-off and use your arms to generate enough momentum. Run tall and avoid leaning forward, and remember to give it your all—these are sprints, after all.
Start with six or eight sprints up the steepest hill you can find, then gradually build up to ten or more over a few sessions. After each sprint, take at least 90 seconds to catch your breath and fully recover before sprinting up the hill again.
2. Long Hill Repeats
Are you ready to take your endurance training to the next level? Look no further than the long hill repeats workout! While the short hill sprints focus on explosive power, the long hill repeats are all about building endurance and improving your running economy.
This type of hill workout is ideal for those training for longer distances, like half marathons and full marathons. You’ll be able to maintain a challenging pace up the hill but leave the speed for the shorter hill sprints.
So how do you tackle the long hill repeats workout? Start with a proper warm-up, including a five-minute slow jog and some lower-body dynamic movements. Then, find a moderate hill that’s at least half a mile long and has a 5 percent grade. Run up the hill at an effort equal to or slightly faster than your 10K race pace, aiming for a perceived exertion level of around 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Remember to pace yourself and finish each repetition with enough energy left for one or two more. Run down the hill at a mildly comfortable effort of about 70 percent of your max to prevent injury and fully recover before the next repetition. Repeat the cycle three to four times and feel the burn as you improve your endurance and overall conditioning level.
Research papers and studies have shown that hill repeats can be a valuable addition to any endurance training program. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that running uphill can increase running economy and improve muscle strength and power.
Another study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that uphill running can improve maximal oxygen uptake, which is a key measure of aerobic fitness. So why not give the long hill repeats workout a try and see the benefits for yourself?
3. Long Hill Runs
Have you ever felt like you were running on a never-ending uphill climb? Long hill runs might just be the workout for you. These steady-state hill runs are the go-to workout for runners looking to improve their hill running skills and overall fitness. And the benefits are not limited to just hill running.
Research has shown that long hill runs tap into the slow-twitch fibers, which are responsible for maximum endurance, making them the staple and baseline for every long-distance runner. And if you’re planning to race on a hillier course, then incorporating long hill runs into your training is a must.
But that’s not all – long hill runs can also boost ankle flexibility, which helps improve stride length and frequency. Plus, adding some hard downhill sections can add an extra challenge and help build strength in your legs.
When it comes to distance, the average long hill run distance can vary from three miles to 10 miles, depending on your fitness level and training goals. But don’t go overboard and kill yourself trying to conquer the hill. Start with a half-mile to a mile of steep uphill in your long runs, and gradually increase the total volume of uphill as you get stronger.
Or, if you’re up for a real challenge, find a long hill that ascends for at least five to ten miles and shoot for 45- to 90 minutes of continuous uphill running. You can also choose a route that incorporates plenty of rolling hills – it’s always your choice.
Additional resource – Trx exercises for runners
4. Downhill Running
Sure, the uphill is where the true test of strength lies, but the downhill section is where you can truly improve your running game.
Research has shown that downhill running can increase quadriceps strength, helping to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness. It can also teach you how to control your pace using your core muscles and improve your running form.
So, how can you incorporate downhill running into your workout routine? Start with a proper warm-up, then ease into the downhill with a short and fast burst on a gentle slope with a stretch of smooth surface at the base. Open up your stride slightly, lean forward, and let gravity be your ally. Keep your pace under control and brace your core tight.
As you improve, increase the distance of your downhill section to as much as 200 to 400 meters. And remember, never let the hill control you – you are the one in charge.
If you don’t have time for a specific workout, you can simply reverse your long hill repeats. This will help you condition your legs and improve your overall running endurance.
5. Hill Bounding
Hill bounding is the ultimate running-specific workout to take your training to new heights! It’s like a secret weapon for building leg strength and power without ever setting foot in a weight room. If you’re looking for a way to improve your running form and increase your speed, then hill bounding is your answer.
Research studies have shown that hill bounding drills are an effective way to build leg strength, power, and speed. The quadriceps and ankle muscles get the most significant boost, which translates into improved push-off power and top-end speed. But don’t worry; your glutes, hamstrings, and calves also get their fair share of strength training during hill bounding.
But before you start bounding up hills, make sure you have a solid foundation of cardio and muscular power. Hill bounding is not for the faint of heart or beginners. It’s a challenging workout that requires focus, technique, and commitment.
When you’re ready to try hill bounding, find a hill with a moderate grade of 5 to 7 percent. Start with a few simple drills like hill bounding, hill accelerations, and one-leg hops. Hill bounding involves running up the hill with extra-long steps while keeping your top speed. Focus on maximizing the height of each stride by bringing up your knees as high as possible and stretching the Achilles tendons completely as your feet hit the ground. And don’t forget to have a strong ankle push-off!
Hill accelerations are another great drill to try. Start running slowly at the bottom of the hill, and as soon as you reach the middle point, pick up the pace and run as fast as you can to the top while reducing step length. One-leg hops involve moving up the hill as fast as possible by hopping on one foot. Walk down for recovery, then switch to the other foot.
How Much Hill Training?
When you start incorporating hill bounding into your training, schedule one hill session every 7 to 14 days. As you get fitter, add time to your repeats and an extra climb. Depending on your fitness experience and training goals, you can perform anywhere from eight to ten repetitions.
Just remember to not do it more than once a week, and mix up your hill workouts with some steep and short hills and others with less challenging inclines.
Thank You for this article. I am a HUGE proponent of hill runs for conditioning, power, speed, etc. And I live in South Florida, where there are virtually NONE! I find it SO short-sighted when a runner dismisses hills!