The Truth About Hill Training
Hill training can be an uphill battle, both literally and figuratively, but it is a critical component of any distance training plan. When implemented, hills can help you become a stronger endurance athlete and they’ll make those flat roads feel a little less intimidating. Here’s how:
- Hills build leg strength. The stronger your legs, the stronger you will feel during your runs. When training uphill, you are targeting the posterior chain (back side) of your body, specifically the glutes and hamstrings. Running uphill targets these muscles differently than running on an even ground. Scientifically speaking, we have two different types of muscle fibers in our body, either fast-twitch or slow-twitch. Running on even ground for a long period of time works your slow-twitch muscles. Running uphill or doing short sprints will target your fast-twitch muscles. Even though a distance race will primarily work your slow-twitch muscles, training fast-twitch as part of your plan is what will help you get faster over time, even at longer distances. This leads into the next point…
- Doing the same thing over and over will get you the same results. We talked about the different types of muscle fibers in our body and the role they play. This is why it is so important to train both by adding various types of workouts into your training plan. Hill training will not only target your muscles and build strength in a different way, but it will also prepare you for any hills that might pop up mid race. If you’ve only trained for distance and never practiced hills, you may feel unprepared or even a little intimidated when you get to a big hill a few miles in on race day.
- Hills train mental toughness. Repeating a hill over and over is tough and it can be hard to find motivation to get out there and get it done. To help break it down, try taking quick recoveries in between each hill interval. These recoveries will help to break the run into smaller components overall. When you are training, instead of thinking of the entire workout ahead of you, think to yourself “I just have to make it up this hill”, and then repeat! This is a great mental tactic you can use during ANY race, training run, etc. and it helps break it down into something more manageable. Plus, just think about the accomplishment you will feel when you get to the top!
- Focus on form and strategy! Last but definitely not least, there are two key components to uphill running. Form and the strategy of getting up and back down the hill, especially on race day. First let’s focus on form, think about tilting forward slightly and driving your knees up a little higher as you climb the hill. Pump the arms front to back, keeping the elbows bent 90 degrees. Look straight ahead, not down at your feet, and focus on breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.Next, let’s talk strategy, especially in a distance race or on a workout that requires multiple hill repeats. The key is to conserve your energy so that you do not feel burnt out immediately after completing the hill and you can complete the rest of the race or workout as planned. The key to doing this successfully is by focusing on form and using the legs to drive power up the hill. Once at the top of the hill, keep the momentum going and take 3 strong strides. Afterwards, slow down to a manageable pace and maintain this down the hill.
The number one thing to AVOID is sprinting down the hill, for many reasons. First, running downhill places added strain on your hips which can cause soreness, so it is important to keep your pace in control to prevent this. Second, your speed downhill should never exceed a speed you could maintain at a flat road effort. This is because even though the hill is helping you achieve a faster speed, your body is not used to that pace from a cardiovascular and muscular standpoint, so you will feel just as winded and tired. Think about it, you wouldn’t sprint at top speed randomly in the middle of a half marathon because that would take away a lot of energy that is needed to be conserved for the race. The concept is the same here. Sprinting down the hill and losing control of your form wastes needed energy. Instead, stay strong up the hill and use the downhill portion to get some much-needed recovery at a controlled, steady pace.
Next time you’re dreading running uphill, put these tactics into practice and see how it helps you improve your hill running and overall racing over time! Our challenge to you is to find a hill in your community and do a few repeats up and down each week to practice. Bonus points for doing this at the end of a run to mimic the feeling of running up a hill mid-race when you are already fatigued. Happy Hill Running!
Written by: Ashley Morrison
Ashley has over 17 years of running and racing experience and is both NASM CPT and RRCA Certified. For more running tips and tricks, find Ashley at Run With Ashley on Instagram or on her website and blog.
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