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Hill Running Benefits


Why? Why? Why? I ask myself every time I’m running up hills, but I still do them because apparently, there is plenty of science to prove the benefits of adding hill repeats into your training. With that in mind, I should probably keep going. It’s obvious from watching me struggle up that hill, and maybe from your own experiences, that hills are relatively hard. But so what?

Addressing Hills Head-On

I mean, if you’re doing a nice, steady effort and you’re trying to keep your heart rate level, you can simply just go slower up the hill and maintain that. But today, we are addressing hills head-on. Now, they can be slightly unpleasant, as I’ve alluded to, and quite hard work. So I imagine that you guys probably need a bit of convincing as to why you should add hill reps into your training. And that’s what I’m going to do.

Supporting Studies

Well, there have been studies to help prove this, including one from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia by Nagatru Woku and Dr. Ashinaki Tarise, who claimed this at the end of their study. A general strength-oriented, presented hill training program is an appropriate and efficient method for improving both strength and speed endurance ability in distance runners.

Well-planned hill training programs can significantly improve VO2 max, resting heart rate, speed endurance, and race performance of middle and long-distance athletes.

Breaking Down the Science

Well, let’s break this down. Did you know that when you’re running uphill, you can actually switch on or fire more motor units than when you’re running on the flat if you’re running at the same intensity? But what does that mean? I hear you asking. Well, motor units are basically firing or innovating all of those small muscle fibers. The more of those units you’ve got firing, the more muscle fibers you’ve got firing, and therefore, more of that specific muscle is going to be working hard, which in the end is going to help develop your strength height and your endurance specific to running.

Beyond Legs and Muscles

Well, the benefit of hill running goes beyond the legs and their muscles. Let’s move further up the body. Yes, I’m talking about the core. Now, obviously, all running engages the core. You need a strong core to be able to hold yourself and move through the movement. But imagine if you did all of your running on the flat, then your core would only be being challenged in one dimension, so to speak.

But if you add a hill into it, you’re going to have a bit of a forward tilt. It’s very subtle, but it is changing your body position and the way your body is moving, and it’s going to be engaging some different muscles. That actually carries over to your running form as well. You’ll find naturally you’re probably going to want to drive your arms more efficiently and more effectively. You’re also going to be firing up some of that posterior chain, especially your glutes.

The Power of Hill Running

Another reason that it’s probably easier to prove is running power. Now, if you are someone who runs with that metric thing, you can go and experiment and see for yourself. Experiments prove that you can actually get higher running power when running uphill compared to running on the flat. And this is certainly true for non-trained sprinters because at maximum power, you’re actually on the flat, you’re going to be limited by your coordination if you’re trying to run flat out. Whereas when it comes to the hill and the gravity, you can put out maximum power, but you won’t be going so fast, so you won’t need that same amount of coordination.

Injury Prevention

And finally, probably the strongest of all the arguments is the reduced chance of injury when you’re running uphill; there’s less downforce going through your body as when you’re running on the flat for the equal intensity. It does come with a caveat there because what goes up must come down. So if you’re using it for this tactic, make sure you take the downhill nice and easy.

Training Methods

High-Intensity Benefits

Most of the evidence around the benefits of including hill repeats in your training is based on high intensity. Those hill sprints to develop power are really great, but probably less so if you’re an endurance athlete. But as you now know, there are plenty of other benefits for running hills. It just depends on how you use them in your training, and you’ll be pleased to know there are plenty of options.

Challenging Yet Rewarding

Hills are always going to be more challenging than running on the flat because you’re moving your body forwards as well as upwards, but they don’t always have to be flat out. That is one of the benefits of hills, that you can take them steady and know you’re still going to be getting a really good physical workout.

Conversation and Cardio

You’ve probably noticed if you’re out for a run with a friend and you’re jogging along on the flat and you’re chatting and you suddenly start going uphill, having that conversation is much harder. That’s because your cardiovascular system is going to be getting that intense workout, but it’s going to be very reduced on the impact on your skeletal system, one of those main benefits.

Building Aerobic Base

If you are trying to build that really nice aerobic base, hills can be a really great way of doing this. For example, you can find a nice long, steady hill, say 5 to 10% gradient, and run up it at a steady pace. It doesn’t need to be hard. It can be slower than your pace on the flat. Turn around at the top and jog back down. The emphasis here is making it continuous, but you’re putting less impact through your legs because you’re not having to run as fast to get that same effort level.

Natural Fartlek Training

When it comes to adding intensity into your running program, maybe you’re returning from some time off, then hills can offer a really nice natural fartlek. Say you’ve got an undulating route near you, you can head out for a run and aim to maintain the same pace throughout it. That’s going to naturally make the steeper uphills really hard. The medium hills just a little bit harder. The downhills super easy and you don’t really need to think about increasing that intensity. It’s naturally going to happen. It’s a really nice way to mix up your training. It makes it quite fun and you’re working hard without really having to think too much about it.

Hill Reps and Endurance

Hill reps are great for producing and working on that power, but they are not limited to that top-end work. For example, if you could find a medium-steep hill and run up it for 20 to 30 seconds at high intensity and repeat this, that is a really great workout for endurance athletes and it’s going to help with that strength. You’ll soon notice that it won’t just be your lungs that are burning, but also your legs.

Steady Runs Over Hilly Terrain

I know today we are focusing on hill repeats, but hills don’t always have to be about working harder.

They can also be incorporated into steady runs and still provide great benefits. Steady runs over hilly terrain can help build strength, endurance, and improve overall running technique. These kinds of runs aren’t about pushing yourself to the limit but rather maintaining a consistent pace and effort level, even when the terrain changes. This challenges different muscle groups, enhances your aerobic conditioning, and adds variety to your training routine without necessarily increasing the intensity.

Conclusion: Embracing the Challenge

So there you have it, hills in all their glory, a challenge to be embraced rather than avoided. They provide a multitude of benefits from building strength, speed, and endurance, to improving your running form and even reducing the risk of injury. 

Whether you’re a sprinter looking to develop maximum power or an endurance athlete aiming to build a strong aerobic base, hills can be a key part of your training strategy. The options are versatile and can be tailored to your specific needs and goals. Remember, the hill doesn’t get easier; you just get stronger. So next time you find yourself faced with a daunting incline, don’t shy away – take it head-on and reap the rewards of hill running.

George N.