Hills, a runner's favourite love/hate relationship. Or at least that was what I was told when I first started running. If you've ever ran on a treadmill on an incline, you'll know the workout you get from even running on a 2% incline for long distances.
As part of our ongoing series "How I Became a Faster Runner", we now get to the lesser known types of runs that have helped me personally become a faster and stronger, more confident runner.
For part 1 (How I Became a Faster Runner - Speed Work) - Click here.
For part 2 (How I Became a Faster Runner - Tempo Runs) - Click here.
For part 3 (How I Became a Faster Runner - LSD Runs) - Click here.
While our first three runs (links above) will help us to become more efficient, build endurance and speed, we still need to be strong runners. This is where the fourth element of our training comes in. Consider this, if there was a “strength training” element for runners that didn’t involve time in the gym, or at home workouts, then hill running is the answer.
Similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT); a form of interval training alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods, hills can offer a short workout with huge gains.
This makes it a great way to get a lot of work in for almost less time and a lot less pounding on the body, as hill running can be very low impact in comparison to flat runs on the pavement over several miles.
More importantly, it is also a great place to watch our form in action. It’ll teach us to stay upright and to keep our feet and arms moving, and before we know it, we’ll be up and over the hill.
Where to Start.
One way to approach is by using the same backward approach we have seen in this series that slow and steady wins the race. For me, growing up, we were taught to walk before we can run, before we could ride a bike, and so on, and it’s the same principle here.
Starting slow, we build up as we progress, so firstly, find a hill (not a mountain) with a relatively low slope gradient. As we progress, we can find more challenging hills.
Fortunately, I live in Toronto and there are hills a plenty in a variety of gradients. Some are gentle, others result in me cursing every name under the sun. But in general, most places I have been to around the world has a hill of sorts, even if it's just a small mound around a track, or in a park.
Incorporating Hills into Your Runs.
The easiest way to incorporate hill training into your training is to just run in areas where there are hills. You can add them to your long runs or even make them short tempo spurts with the added resistance that is gravity.
Whether you run up or down them, it gives your body a challenge and then some recovery time before attempting the next one. Some hills I enjoy running down rather than uphill as it allows me to work on some speed as well as controlling the body on a descent without hitting the brakes.
Warning to new runners, while running downhill can be daunting, do not give into the temptation of leaning back and running using your heels. Surprisingly as it may seem, you can control your speed without having to forcibly heel strike your way down.
If however, you’re looking for a quick/short workout, hill repeats is another example of getting a good workout into your training in a short amount of time.
An example of one set of repeats I used during a training clinic where we encountered smaller hills as part of our warm-up before tackling two longer and steeper hills.
During the 5.5km run, we were able to get in 10 climbs and then practice our controlled descent back down the hill, and then turning around and going back up the same two hills.
As mentioned above, the hill repeats will be more similar to HIIT workout being short, intensive and then you can either use the downhill to work on speed, or take it as part of an active recovery at a slower pace.
In Practice (Sample Workout).
Once we’ve found a hill, try this little workout to get started. We’re going to do two different and alternative workouts five times each for 10 sets. We’re going to start with:
With our chosen hill, we will want to reach the same point in both our walk (45 seconds) and run (25 seconds) as we don’t want to keep lowering ourselves down the hill.
Coaches Corners: To also help us up the hill, big arm swings will power us up. It may seem exaggerated and in some cases silly, but it really does help you up. Your hips will power you forward with both the glutes and hamstrings engaged.
The only difference between the power walk and the run is your turnover in your steps. In the run, we will be taking smaller steps that will land underneath us instead of out front which happens while we’re walking making the hill more manageable.
As we progress with hills, we can take on steeper hills, or increase the number of runs up the hill and drop the number of walks. Keep to 10 sets (be it 6 and 4, 7 and 3, etc.,) and decrease the amount of rest at the bottom of the hill, slowly increase our speed down the hill as our recovery time decreases. Once we’ve mastered one hill, let’s mix it up and take on the next hill.
Words of Caution.
The time between your sets really depends on your own fitness levels as we should be utilising the downhill as our recovery. Going uphill will raise your heart rate up towards the maximum, so slowing down on the downhill is key.
If we find ourselves a little out of breath, or not fully recovered once at the bottom, it’s perfectly fine to take a minute or two to recover. We’re starting out, we don’t want to push too hard too soon.
About the Author
David is a runner from Manchester, England and now resides in Toronto, Canada. He has been a "serious" runner since 2017 and his favorite distance is the 10k.
He represents Brooks Canada as part of their #RunHappy Team as well as supports mental health initiatives such as Outrun the Dark.