Most any training program includes hill training of some kind. For flatlanders it might be stadium stairs. For others it might be trail runs and others yet will find the slopes on various roads in the area.
Historically, we believed that running hilly courses or trails and throwing in a few hill repeat runs prepared us for hills. We also thought that if we did hill repeats they made us faster. Though a good start, research has given us more insights into improving our approaches to integrating hill work into training programs.
So let’s start at the beginning. Some hill work is better than no hill work, even if it is an “artificial” hill like stadium stairs or flights of stairs in buildings and even if it is not well organized. The best hill work is quality hill work as opposed to passive hill running. (Passive hill training is running any hilly terrain at a steady pace.) Quality hill work gives us far more return on our investment of energy (e.g. it’s efficient training). We also know that hill training, by the very nature of offering resistance, actually teaches our legs to move slower. (Think of the neuro-muscular contractions.) So, hill training itself doesn’t make you fast. It makes you strong. It is a precursor to getting faster because it makes you stronger so you can handle more quality mileage. That ability to handle more repeats within a workout and/or more frequent quality workouts is what directly leads to running faster. (Fast movements make you fast. Not long steady or resisted slow movements… regardless of how many.)
Here are some key hill training points:
Ease into hill work or you will definitely encourage injuries. The most effective way to train on hills is to use a progressive tiered approach which moves from general to specific strength building, to short hill repeats to longer hill repeats. Each phase should last 4-8 weeks.
First we introduce general strengthening with circuit training; and some easy trail runs and passive hilly course runs. Passive hill training is acceptable for general strength development. You need to introduce trail running to your routine incrementally. This is a nice pre-season or off-season workout. At this time of the season, vary your pace and have fun. You can turn a passive hill workout into an active and more effective hill workout by running hard specifically up the hills during that run.
We then move into running-specific strength training (i.e. 200-800 meter repeats at 5k pace with specific core and body strength exercises between each repeat; add more complex drills and exercises). This is followed by integrating once-a-week workouts with repeats on a gradual inclined (3%) hill (i.e. repeats will move from 400-1000 meters and the goal is to maintain about 5k pace). After some adaptation, we follow that with a second hill workout on a steeper (8%) incline (i.e. use bounding drills for short durations – 30-100 yards). During the return rest interval in these hill repeats, walk down the steep hill repeats and jog easy down on the longer ones.
One interesting tidbit from research indicates that the best results for hill training are a combination of hill work types (steep and modest sloped repeats). The combination provides more powerful physiological and performance results than either one used alone.
If you are going to run a hilly race you have to train for hills but hill training is also race-specific. If that course has significant downhills (i.e. St. George, Boston); then you must train specifically for them. The myth is that these courses are “fast” because they have large portions of downhills. If you don’t prepare for it, you won’t run fast. If you haven’t conditioned yourself (quadriceps especially) for the downhill pounding, you may start out like gang-busters but you’ll not be running fast for very long.
Running form on hills is important. You will become more comfortable, more efficient and better with practice. Going up, do not over-lean into the hill. Run fairly erect still. This takes core body strength. Don’t try to take big strides, use shorter, efficient strides and increase leg turnover instead. Relax and if you maintain a somewhat erect posture and only a slight lean you will be better off. Downhill running also takes practice and adaptation. Relax but don’t let loose and go wild. Do not lean backward and “brake” when you run downhill. Allow gravity to do some work. It is more likely that downhill running will cause injuries than uphill due to pounding. The exception is for someone prone to tendonitis (usually Achilles) which is exacerbated with uphill efforts.
Too much too soon will get you injured fast. So, be sure you laid a good foundation with running-specific and general strength work prior to this phase of your training. It is also good to intermittently use hill work thoughout the year.