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How To Master Hill Running – And Why

Running
(Image credit: Unknown)

If you’re a regular runner looking to improve your speed and endurance you’ll know that it’s essential to mix up your training sessions. Sometimes that means short sprint sessions. Sometimes it means getting miles in your legs with a long, easy run. And sometimes, it means hill training.

If you’re struggling to find the motivation to tackle some hills – either on the treadmill or outside – Myprotein (opens in new tab) health and fitness expert Faye Reid has shared four benefits of incline training. Then we have three training sessions from trainer Steve Halsall (opens in new tab), graded in difficulty for different fitness levels so you can find one that challenges you. Finally there are top tips for tackling hill training from Ieuan Thomas, Saucony UK Athlete and British world championship competitor.

Four Benefits Of Hill Running

1. It Burns More Calories

If your number one aim is to burn calories, find your nearest incline. The extra effort involved compared with running on the flat means you’ll be calling on your body’s reserves at a much faster rate, while also strengthening your muscles

“Uphill running utilises more muscle fibres than flat running and therefore improves strength while burning fat,” says Faye Reid.

2. It Prevents Common Running Injuries

Regular runners place a lot of pressure on their shins and knees, often resulting in persistent niggles in those areas. Running uphill can help you avoid exacerbating those issues.

“Flat and downhill runs will mean that your weight is shifted forward and have more impact on your shins than on the supporting calf muscles, quads, hamstrings and glutes that are used to propel you forward when running uphill,” says Reid.

“The same can be said for your joints – your knees feel more strain on a flat or declining surface than your posterior muscles do.

“Uphill running is a perfect option for anyone looking to work those rear muscles and avoid excessive strain on your shins and knees.”

3. It Improves Endurance

No flat run feels easier than the first flat run after a hill session, and the overall endurance improvements you make will be clear next time you tackle a long race.

“By regularly running uphill, you’ll find returning to your previous flat runs comparatively easy,” says Reid.

“As the incline requires more effort and puts your muscles fibres to work, in time your overall running stamina and form will improve.”

4. It Increases Speed

Running both up and down hills helps strengthen the muscles in your legs so if you feel the need for speed, incline work can get you there.

“The extra workout to your leg muscles helps increase your running speed,” says Reid. “The same can be said for downhill running, which will build your quads. If it’s a personal best you are training for, add hill running intervals into your routine.”

Hill Training Workouts

“Hill sessions are probably the hardest sessions you do and your heart rate gets up high very quickly,” says Steve Halsall. “In the advanced session, the exercises between runs will pre-exhaust your energy systems and give you a cross-over into strength training.” Find a hill with an 8-10% incline (ie, very steep) that you can run up for about 100m, take a deep breath and get moving. We've treated level 2 as the standard but if it's too hard, start with level 1. When you've mastered it move to level 3.

Hill Workout 1

Warm-up Jog for five minutes on flat ground followed by bodyweight lunges and squats.

  • Walk fast to the top, then walk back down x3.
  • Skip to the top, then walk back down x3.
  • Jog to the top, then walk back down x3. Keep your strides short and swing your arms to help you move fluidly up the hill.
  • High-knee skips to the top, then walk back down x3. Exaggerate your knee raise with every step while swinging your arms to assist the move. This will help you bring your legs through powerfully and efficiently when you go back to running on the flat.

Warm-down Jog for five minutes, then do some static stretches, focusing on your quads, hamstrings and calves.

Hill Workout 2

Warm-up Jog for five minutes on flat ground followed by bodyweight lunges and squatsstar jumps and side lunges.

  • Hill sprints x10. The key to running fast uphill is to make sure you pump your arms. Your legs will naturally follow that powerful movement. Do the first repetition at 10% of your maximum perceived effort, then add 10% more effort every repetition. Jog, rather than walk, back to the start.
  • High-knee skips x10. Leap and bound up the hill, keeping your knees high and using a powerful arm action to propel yourself. Jog back to the start.
  • Lateral shuffle x10. Crouching in a squat position, move diagonally forwards, sidestepping all the way to the top.

Warm-down Jog for five minutes, then do some static stretches, focusing on your quads, hamstrings and calves.

Hill Workout 3

Warm-up Jog for five minutes on flat ground followed by bodyweight lunges and squatsstar jumps and side lunges. After that do 20m of fast, small steps on your toes to prime your calves.

Split your path up the hill into four equal points 25m apart and do the following drills.

  • Hill sprints x10. Increase your speed after every 25m marker. Jog back down to the start.
  • Leg circuit and sprints x10. At each marker you will perform 30 reps of just one leg exercise – squatlunge, squat to calf raise or jump squat – then sprint to the next marker and perform the next exercise. Jog back to the start.
  • Descent sprints x10. Jog to the top of the hill, then run flat-out to the bottom. This will teach your body to run faster.

Warm-down Jog for five minutes, then do some static stretches, focusing on your quads, hamstrings and calves.

Hill Running Tips

1. Choose A Good Hill

Go steep, but not too steep. A study published in the Journal Of Applied Physiology found that anything over 9° (the max on most treadmills), is more efficient to walk than run. And keep it short – ten- to 30-second intervals beat endless slogging.

Why it works You’ll recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibres by going near maximum intensity, so go for intervals you can only maintain for a short time to overload your muscles and get your nervous system firing.

2. Keep It Quick

Resist the urge to slow down too much. “Maintain a fast leg cadence,” says Ieuan Thomas. “Think about your ground contact and ‘springing’ back off the ground as soon as possible after contact.”

Why it works Your tendons naturally store some energy with each step. Landing on your heels or slowing down will only make you less efficient and more tired.

3. Resist The Lean

You’re going to want to hunch up like Rocky. Don’t. “Fight the urge to lean too far forwards,” says Thomas. “This will reduce your range of motion, leading to a shorter stride and less power output.” Instead, let yourself angle naturally towards the incline.

Why it works Lean too much and you’ll end up bending at the waist, which will constrict your hip flexors and suck away energy. Keep a straight line between your legs, hips and shoulders.

4. Keep Moving Your Arms

Hill runs are a full-body endeavour. “The faster your arms move, the faster your legs will move too,” says Thomas. “Use them to generate more leg power.”

Why it works The idea that our arms and legs are “neurocoupled” as a result from our evolution from quadrupeds is speculative – but studies are clear that arm-swinging works for power generation. Tone it down on the flats for greater efficiency.

5. Watch The Terrain

Even if you’re not going to race off-road, it’s worth doing it in training. “If you’re going off-road, be wary of loose and uneven terrain,” says Thomas. Look up and ahead to spot your next foot placement rather than looking directly at the floor.

Why it works Off-roading will force you to change your gait and recruit balance, activating and conditioning stabiliser muscles that don’t normally get a look-in on the road.

6. Enjoy The Downhills

“Avoid the temptation to lean back on the downhills,” says Thomas. “It’s a waste of energy. Instead of striding further and braking, up your cadence and focus on turnover.” In a 2008 study, anything steeper than 5.8% will start to wreck your form.

Why it works Artificially increasing your stride rate can train your neuromuscular system to work faster. Short bursts of speed on the flat will also work, but downhills are better.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.