1. Why is it important to add hills to your training and what are the top benefits of doing so?
- Hill running builds strength, stability, stamina, and power in our muscles. Strength and power can be directly applied thereafter on to the track and road for both cycling and running.
- An increase in quadricep, gluteal, and calf strength from the powerful drive needed to propel ourselves up hills will create change and adaptation in muscles, allowing for a greater power output and faster speed on the flat.
- Strengthening these larger muscle groups will also serve to protect smaller muscles and joints. Where hill running can be hard on the knees, especially on the downhills, it will also improve the strength, flexibility, and stability of tendons and check ligaments around the knee and ankle joints to create greater steadiness and symmetry for running in general.
- There is always a time for hill running and some body types cannot deal with constant training on varying gradients; hence, it is important to find what suits your body and training regime.
- Hill running will also build heart and lung capacity, especially during long climbs (400m plus) where the heart-rate is high for prolonged periods of time.
2. How should I incorporate hills into my training? Do I just pick a big hill and go?
- Start with a lesser gradient: all hills should be runnable. There is little point training to run on hills if you have walk them (unless you are training for a hike!) Begin at no more than 20 seconds of uphill running effort for sprints, and build these in both time and distance gradually.
- At first, walk the return. When correct downhill running can be maintained then increase the amount of run-return that you do. Downhill running is mostly about confidence, we mustn’t brace the body – we will go more in to this during point 4.
- Add a hill session in to your training once a fortnight to begin with, and expect to pull up a bit sore! Don’t follow, or precede this session with a leg day in the gym or a long run/ride. You want to have impeccable technique when running hills and to do this, the body needs to be relatively fresh.
- Choose a hill with good footing. Firm gravel is better than concrete – especially on the descents.
3. What are the best drills for hills?
- Sprints – 10-20 seconds of ‘go hard and fast’ runnable gradient efforts. These are good to use as you would run-throughs – 4-8reps at the beginning and end of a session. These will build power!
- Long Climbs – Uphill efforts of 30seconds plus. Approximately 100m to 400m of a consistent gradient where you can work at a strong effort over the duration. These will build stamina!
- Descents – Only when you are ready should you start running your descents. Ensure the gradient is slight to moderate, you don’t need to be running down steep escarpments at this stage! Take it easy at first, as confidence and technique improves, the aim is to be able to recover from the uphills whilst running fast downhill (because cardiovascular-wise you are not working anywhere near as much, you should be able to increase the pace whilst still giving your lungs and heart a rest in readiness for the next fast flat or ascent) This will build confidence and then ability to ‘Recover on the Run’!
- Trail Running – Head out on the trails. If you are the kind of person who likes to just ‘get lost amongst the trees’ then this is perfect. Otherwise, map a route or take a friend who knows where they are going. This is where you can start to explore some single tracks and altering terrain and footing. Ensure you have the correct footwear; trail-runners if it is loose gravel/rocks, or wet and slippery. Allow your body to just go with the flow, run to effort, not pace. Lean into the corners, use your eyes! Relax. This will build stability in tendons and ligaments surrounding ankle and knee joints and is so enjoyable!
- Fartlek – Intervals on the hills are great for training, just as they are on the flat. You can adapt any interval or fartlek session onto the hills. Try not to always do your efforts up, and recoveries down. Mix it up! These will improve your speed-endurance.
4. Technique talk - how does running uphill differ to downhill? Are there different muscle groups involved?
UPHILL TECHNIQUE –
- Knee lift: Higher knee drive – imagine you are climbing a flight of stairs.
- Body angle: The body must create a straight line from ankle to ear in correlation to the gradient of the incline. No fold from the waist, the ankle is your hinge.
- Arm swing: Arm tilt should also be relative to the gradient of the hill you are running; in the case of forearms - the steeper the hill, the higher the hands. Imagine there is a cable running from the top of the hill to you, grab it with your hands to pull yourself up. Be strong in your arms, the faster you drive them, the quicker your legs will turn to keep up.
- Eyes: Look approximately 45 degrees ahead of you – around 5 metres. If you look straight down at the ground your shoulders and upper body will fall, thus no core engagement. If you look to far ahead, this will bring your body out of correct alignment, sending you too upright or backwards, placing more force on your calves, hamstrings, heels and lower back.
- Foot placement: Mid to fore-foot landing is best here. Allow the heels to act as spring boards for your calves. Be light. Run as if on hot coals. Try not to bring your feet out in front of you, you still want to be running ‘over your legs’.
DOWNHILL TECHNIQUE –
- Knee lift: Lower knee lift – have enough height above the ground so that you won’t trip over, but keep the knees lower and allow the legs to flow out behind you. You must relax here, not drive. Roll the legs in a cycling motion.
- Body angle: Don’t lean backwards, rather; ‘Fall in to the Run’. Let your legs run away from you like a child hurtling down a grassy embankment! This comes with confidence and will take time. Again - no fold from the waist, the ankle is your hinge.
- Arm swing: Arm tilt should still be relative to the gradient of the hill you are running; in the case of forearms – lower your arms when descending and relax from the shoulders. You can use your arms to slow you down by bringing them out to the sides away from your ribs – creating wind resistance. This is a common technique used by trail-runners and will give you greater stability and confidence.
- Eyes: Still aim to look approximately 45 degrees ahead of you – around 5 metres. If you look straight down at the ground your shoulders and upper body will fall, thus no core engagement and you are more likely to trip over! We want to avoid this AT ALL COSTS! If you look too far ahead, this will bring your body out of correct alignment, sending you too upright or backwards, placing more force on your calves, hamstrings, heels and lower back. This is where we can start ‘bracing’ which just absolutely kills your quads and fatigues the legs a whole lot quicker.
- Foot placement: Mid to fore-foot landing is best here. Be light. Run like a fairy. Try not to bring your feet out in front of you, you still want to be running ‘over your legs’. Lead with the front of your body.
5. How do I avoid injuries such as rolled ankles, shin splints or knee/hip pain?
This will all depend on the individual and ensuring that like any new training, you build into it gradually and allow the body to adapt and strengthen over time. If you are prone to weaknesses in the knees and ankles, then providing them with some stability through taping is advisable.
LOOK WHERE YOU ARE GOING! You must concentrate on where you are putting your feet. Don’t pick hills/trails that are too technical if you are not confident. Stretching up through the waist and keeping core engagement is paramount to protecting hips and knees. Be conscious of when you are fatiguing and how your body is reacting to this. Remind yourself of cues to keep you running with strong posture. Run yourself ‘over the ground’, not in to it!
6. How often is too often? How do I regulate my hill running?
Gradual increase in hill training days, duration, and distance. As with anything, you can have too much of a good thing! If you are pulling up sore, stick to the flats for a while. Choose your hills carefully and ensure that hill sessions are always ‘Quality, not Quantity’.
7. Can I get the same result from a treadmill?
Simple answer – no… They are two completely different things I’m afraid. You are better to run stair reps than to increase the gradient on your treadmill (in my opinion).