Login | September 25, 2020

Don’t avoid those hill running workouts

Pete’s World

Published: September 14, 2020

Have you been spending most of your running time on flat terrains? And if so…might you be avoiding those hills on purpose? Well if you’ve answered yes to one or both of those questions, I’ve got some news for you: You’re really cheating yourself out of some amazingly beneficial workouts.
You see, those dreaded hill workouts are far more than just pain and plodding, they’re a great running variation that can benefit your overall running by working several key areas.
1. Strengthen muscles
No surprise that hill workouts increase resistance, but that resistance stimulates muscle growth in the legs (quads, hamstrings and calves) which can translate into an increase in strength. Those big powerful gluteus maximus muscles also reap the growth-strength benefit, all of which can help to make you a much stronger, more dynamic runner.
And while we’re at it, hill running strengthens several core muscle groups - the rectus abdominis and the obliques. The rectus abdominis is known as the "abdominal muscle,” and the obliques are those muscles that extend from the lower half of the ribs around and down to the pelvis, and they enable sideways bending and trunk twisting.
2. Improves form
You wouldn’t think so but hill running can indeed improve your running form. How? How about by increasing knee lift, joint mobility, and neuromuscular fitness (how proficiently the nervous system communicates with muscles). When running hills we tend to instinctively raise our knees higher, flex our ankles and hamstrings more than usual, and incorporate more arm swing. And when these movements are applied to flat land running you just might find yourself able to accelerate quicker and hold top-end speed longer. Improving running form also means it takes longer and harder efforts to make those muscles tired and sore…and that means you just might find yourself performing better in running races.
3. Faster weight loss
If one of the big reasons you’re running concerns weight loss, well, hill workouts can accelerate that process. And it turns out that the very reason some of you despise hill workouts - because they’re so hard - is exactly why they’re so good. They’re calorie burners plain and simple. Hill running’s far more physically demanding and far tougher than those runs on pancake flat bike/hike and towpath trails.
So if you’re using run workouts as a means to lose weight, for goodness sake, DO hills. Now with that said, you do need to use some discretion with respect to the volume and intensity of your hill workouts. Use that 10% rule I’ve advocated in previous columns - only increase the volume and/or intensity of your hill work by 10% per week. Do this and you’ll likely stay injury free.
4. Boost cardiovascular fitness
Again, pretty much of a no-brainer. But remember, when running up hills the lungs breath deeper and faster, the heart pumps quicker, and blood moves throughout the body faster. Those are prime ingredients for improving your anaerobic and aerobic fitness level.
Okay, so those are just a few of the important benefits that hill running workouts provide. Next, let’s review a couple technique tips to keep in mind when performing hill workouts.
First, let’s start with the most obvious part of uphill running, the lean. What I’m not talking about is a conscious effort to bend - lean forward - from the waist. Nope, it’s more a matter of trying to maintain a stride that’s perpendicular to the terrain.
Think of maintaining straight body alignment, eyes forward, shoulders back, hips and knees aligned. Such a posture is termed “running tall.” When you run tall you’ll have a minute forward lean that’s coming from your ankles. Finally, the elbows should be bent yet maintain a neutral position, and the arms should be pumping a bit more vigorously than is done when flats running.
Now, the steeper the hill, the more you should use your forefoot. And adopting this technique will not only help you climb faster, but it will also translate into accelerating and maintaining faster speeds when you’re on the flats.
The key to mastering these techniques is by beginning slowly, then as those movement patterns become more innate, you can increase your speed and intensity.
Taking on the hills and practicing these hill running techniques will help you develop a hill climbing style that’s both automatic and energy efficient…and that’s when hill running actually becomes fun.