How To Become A Stronger Hill Runner

How To Become A Stronger Hill Runner?

It’s a well-known fact among runners that tackling hills can be a daunting task due to the basic principles of physics—running uphill is undeniably more strenuous than running on flat terrain. The infamous Boston Marathon, for instance, is renowned for its hilly course, adding an extra layer of difficulty. However, don’t resign yourself to sluggish hill performances just yet. Uphill running is a skill and a matter of fitness, both of which you can enhance.

The Physiology of Ascending Hills

Uphill running prowess doesn’t solely hinge on overall running fitness. It’s entirely possible to have two runners with similar overall fitness levels, yet one excels at uphill running while the other finds it challenging. But why is this the case?

Uphill running proficiency relies on a combination of cardiovascular and muscular fitness. According to a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport in 2021, factors such as velocity at VO2max (the pace at which you reach your maximum oxygen consumption) and the strength of your lower limb muscles, especially the extensor muscles, are closely associated with uphill running performance.

Surprisingly, uphill running imposes lower impact forces on your body compared to running on level ground or downhill. However, it involves more mechanical work due to the necessity of counteracting gravity while propelling yourself forward and upward simultaneously.

Biomechanics come into play as well during uphill running, as outlined in a 2016 review in Sports Medicine. Running cadence increases when ascending hills, and biomechanical adjustments include a shorter swing phase of the gait, a longer duration of foot contact with the ground during each stride, and reduced time in the air compared to level and downhill running. These biomechanical shifts result in an augmented power output, especially in the hip area.

Given these nuances in biomechanics and the distinct physiological demands of uphill running, some runners naturally excel more at conquering hills. If you aspire to enhance your hill-running ability, it’s essential to focus on specific areas: improving your power output, honing your running form, and enhancing your muscular strength.


Refining Your Uphill Running Form

Suboptimal running form can hinder your running economy, causing inefficiency and increased energy expenditure while tackling hills. By maintaining good form, uphill and downhill running become more comfortable, ultimately leading to improved paces.

When running uphill, strive for an upright posture with a subtle forward lean. Avoid slumping into the hill or letting your shoulders creep upward. Instead, maintain relaxed, lowered shoulders, and fix your gaze a few feet ahead, rather than staring down at your feet. Employ short, brisk, and powerful strides, ensuring your feet land beneath your body. Simultaneously, maintain a robust arm swing by your side.

Conversely, when descending, it’s crucial to evade the common mistake of over-braking. Resist leaning too far back – there’s no risk of toppling over. Instead, adopt a gentle forward lean and take short, rapid steps. Be mindful not to overreach your feet too far ahead, as overstriding can apply a braking force and diminish your efficiency.

If you encounter difficulties in maintaining proper running form, allocate time to running drills. Following your runs, consider adding 6-10 hill sprints, each lasting 8-15 seconds, with 1-2 minutes of rest in between. While these exercises may appear modest, they will significantly contribute to improving your form, thus enhancing your uphill running performance.


Embrace Heart Rate Drift During Uphill Running

The concept of heart rate drift during uphill running can be somewhat contentious. Some coaches advocate maintaining a low heart rate, even if it necessitates walking up the inclines. However, if your objective is to enhance your uphill running capabilities, it’s crucial to practice precisely that—running uphill, not walking. The goal is not to attack every uphill ascent but rather to run them with ease, gradually becoming more proficient and robust on inclines.

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It’s essential to avoid a significant spike in effort when tackling hills, unless you’re specifically conducting a hill-focused workout, as outlined below. While your heart rate may rise as you ascend, focus on maintaining a comfortable pace and adhering to proper running form, regardless of heart rate fluctuations. Once you reach the summit, leverage the flat or downhill sections to allow your heart rate to naturally lower.

For those who frequently encounter hilly routes in their runs, it’s advisable to factor in heart rate drift when planning training intensity distribution. As an example, rather than incorporating two strenuous workouts in a single week, an alternative approach for athletes might include one demanding workout (such as intervals or tempo runs), one long run, one hilly run, and sessions dedicated to strides, in addition to easy runs.


Enhance Hill-Specific Power Through Targeted Workouts

The principle of specificity holds true here. Just as you wouldn’t attempt a marathon without proper training for long-distance running, the same logic applies to hill running. Becoming a stronger hill runner necessitates dedicated hill training, although it doesn’t mean running hills every single day. Instead, be deliberate in your hill training, just as you would be in any other facet of your running regimen.

There are various types of hill workouts that can be incorporated into your training routine. If you’re new to hill running, start with a straightforward easy effort run on a hilly route. As you grow accustomed to these gentle hill runs, gradually introduce other hill-focused workouts into your training.

When initiating hill workouts, commence with manageable sessions on moderately challenging terrain. The majority of your workouts, including hill sessions, should be moderate efforts rather than overwhelming challenges. Begin with 20-30-second uphill intervals, running at a fast yet controlled pace, and intersperse them with 1-2 minutes of easy running. As you gain strength and efficiency on hills, progressively extend the duration of the uphill intervals.

Aim to include a hill repeat workout at least once every other week. It’s worth noting that hill workouts qualify as quality sessions, so incorporate them in place of a tempo or interval run rather than adding them on top of your existing training regimen.


Diversify Your Training, Don’t Just Focus on Hills

While hill training is undeniably valuable, an excessive emphasis on it can lead to a loss of overall running fitness. Paradoxically, overemphasizing hill training to the detriment of other aspects of fitness can actually impede your progress. But why is this the case?

As David Roche aptly described in “The Happy Runner,” speed remains a crucial factor in your ability to climb quickly, particularly on grades where running becomes challenging. To excel at running uphill, you must first be proficient at running efficiently, if not swiftly, on flat terrain.

A 2018 study featured in the European Journal of Applied Physiology revealed that running economy on flat ground is correlated with running economy on inclines. In simple terms, the velocity you attain on flat terrain can translate to your uphill running speed, provided you incorporate hill training into your regimen. Even incorporating some straightforward strides or surges once or twice per week can help maintain and enhance your running economy.

Short interval workouts and tempo runs are instrumental in developing other aspects of fitness essential for speed and stamina on hills. Long runs contribute significantly to building endurance. Becoming a well-rounded runner, rather than just a hill specialist, is of paramount importance.


Foster Comprehensive Strength

A robust lower body, particularly the glutes and legs, provides the driving force for ascending hills. As you contend with both gravitational and rotational forces while running uphill, a strong core is crucial for stability. An upper body in good condition supports your arm swing and overall running form. To prepare your body for hill running, focus on fundamental functional movements, including squats, push-ups, deadlifts, functional core exercises, and rows.

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Incorporate eccentric and plyometric exercises into your strength training routine to boost force production. Generating more force allows you to run uphill faster with the same energy expenditure. While these exercises should make up a relatively small portion of your overall strength training volume, they play a valuable role in developing your prowess as a hill runner.


Cultivate Confidence Through Experience

Chances are, you possess more hill-running prowess than you give yourself credit for. Don’t shy away from challenging hill workouts or hilly races. Embrace those intimidating hills during your runs, and just go for it. While there’s always a possibility of a tough outing, a strong performance on the hills can bolster your self-image as a capable hill runner, serving as a wellspring of motivation for future runs.

If you grapple with mental hurdles when tackling hills, shift your mindset during these runs. Employ positive self-talk as you ascend, diverting your thoughts away from the perceived difficulty. You might find it helpful to have a concise, affirmative mantra for conquering hills, such as “I am strong.”

Lastly, remember that uphill running is a skill that may not come effortlessly at first, particularly on steep or lengthy inclines. However, with the right training and consistent practice, you’ll steadily evolve into a more adept and confident hill runner.


Example of Hill Workouts

Hill sprints offer a plethora of advantages for runners, ranging from a potent metabolism boost and enhanced running form to increased resistance against fatigue, greater stroke volume (resulting in improved blood flow to muscles), stronger lower body muscles, and bursts of speed development—all achieved without the wear and tear associated with conventional speed training.

Moreover, hill sprints deliver the thrill of running at maximum effort, all while minimizing the risk of injury. Uphill running exerts less force and stress on joints and muscles compared to flat or downhill running.

Consider hill sprints as an ancillary workout, similar to strides or form drills. You can incorporate them into your routine on easy days, reaping significant benefits in your training without accumulating excessive fatigue or placing undue stress on your body. However, if you’re preparing for an exceptionally hilly race like the Boston or New York City Marathon, you’ll need to supplement hill sprints with additional hill-focused workouts to adequately prepare for the demands of such races.

When integrating hill sprints into your routine, do so gradually. Start with 1-2 repeats of 8 seconds uphill, allowing for a full recovery of 60-90 seconds between repetitions. Incorporate these hill sprints once or twice per week following an easy run. While ideally, you should choose a hill with a 5-10% incline, any hill that challenges you without compromising your form will suffice. After a week or two, consider increasing the number of repetitions as your body adapts.

Hill sprints offer benefits to runners of all levels and can be introduced at any point in your training.


Hill Repeats: Running Speed Without the Track

Hill repeats, in contrast to traditional track workouts, teach your body to engage fast-twitch muscle fibers and run at increased speeds while minimizing the risk of injury.

What sets hill repeats apart is the necessity to gauge effort based on perceived effort rather than pace. Most hill workouts are characterized by “5K effort” rather than a specific pace, and this effort level varies significantly depending on factors such as the gradient of your chosen hill, wind conditions, and other variables.

Hill repeats can be tailored to your training goals, with durations ranging from 30 seconds to 5 minutes and effort levels spanning the range from 3K to 10K effort (from very hard to hard).

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Like other demanding running workouts, such as fartleks and tempo runs, it’s essential to begin with a warm-up comprising 5-20 minutes of easy running (adjusted based on your mileage), followed by dynamic stretches and drills like high knees, butt kicks, and skips. Then, tackle 6-8 hill repeats of 1 minute each at a hard effort level, where your breathing should be labored but sustainable over multiple repetitions. Between repeats, engage in a slow jog back down the hill (1-2 minutes). Conclude the session with 5-20 minutes of easy running, followed by foam rolling, refueling, and relishing the sense of accomplishment.


Uphill Progression Runs: Conquer the Climbs

Some race courses feature challenging uphill finishes, leaving runners to question the wisdom behind including a steep hill just before the finish line. Nevertheless, training specificity is paramount, and if your race incorporates uphill segments in its final stretches, it’s crucial to prepare accordingly.

Uphill progression runs offer benefits that extend beyond race-specific scenarios. They impart two vital lessons: the ability to engage your muscles effectively for uphill running and the capacity to maintain effort levels when fatigued. Progression runs, including uphill variations, teach runners the art of pacing during races, particularly if you have a history of starting too fast in marathons and half marathons.

You can integrate an uphill progression run into runs of varying lengths, but the most pronounced benefits emerge in runs lasting 60 minutes or more, allowing time for accumulated leg fatigue. During the final 10-15 minutes of an easy-paced run covering 7-10 miles, seek out a long, gradual incline or a sequence of rolling hills. Run these segments at a moderate effort level; your pace may remain consistent, but your perceived exertion should rise.

Marathoners, in particular, stand to gain from uphill progression runs, as they help in recruiting fast-twitch muscles during fatigue and promote the ability to maintain a higher perceived exertion towards the end of a race. These runs can contribute to achieving the coveted PR you’ve diligently trained for.

Crucially, ensure that proper uphill and downhill running form is maintained throughout these workouts, characterized by an upright posture, strong arm movement, and a swift cadence. This Runner’s Connect article provides comprehensive guidance on the distinction between proper and improper hill running form.

It’s important to remember that these workouts should be seamlessly integrated into a structured, progressive, and well-thought-out training plan when preparing for a race. A mishmash of workouts does not constitute a training plan. If you’re uncertain or desire a training regimen with minimal guesswork, consider enlisting the guidance of a running coach. You can explore my coaching services and training plans here.


Final Words – How To Become A Stronger Hill Runner?

In conclusion, becoming a stronger hill runner is a multifaceted journey that combines physiological understanding, form refinement, smart training, and a healthy dose of confidence-building. While running uphill can be physically demanding, it’s a skill and a matter of fitness that can be improved with dedication and the right approach.

Understanding the physiology of uphill running, focusing on running form, and allowing your heart rate to drift during uphill efforts are essential components of hill running success. Additionally, incorporating hill-specific workouts into your training regimen, while maintaining a balanced overall fitness, will lead to improved performance on the inclines.

Don’t forget to cultivate comprehensive strength through targeted exercises, and most importantly, embrace the challenge by gaining experience on hills. Over time, you’ll develop the skills and confidence needed to conquer even the toughest ascents.

Remember, hill running is not just about tackling hills; it’s about becoming a better and more well-rounded runner. Incorporate these principles into your training plan, and you’ll find yourself ascending hills with greater ease and success, whether you’re training for a hilly race or simply seeking to enhance your overall running abilities.

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