Is Hill Training Really Necessary?

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Some runners view hill training the same way kids view eating green vegetables: they know it’s good for them, but they can’t muster up any enthusiasm for it. Does every runner have to do hill training? Not necessarily. Your training plan should be personalized to your needs and goals. Some runners are perfectly satisfied with their running routine without tackling any hills. Running on flat terrain is still a wonderful way to build your fitness level and endurance. However, if you’re preparing for a race with a hilly course or you’re trying to achieve a personal best time in a given distance, hill training is a proven way to challenge yourself, strengthen your running muscles and rev up your cardiovascular system. Here is a re-cap of the ins and outs (or should I say, ups and downs) of hill training.

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Getting started

Schedule your hill training session wisely, as this type of demanding workout should only be done when you are at your optimal energy level. Try to schedule your hill training mid-week to allow for a full recovery between the hill workout and your weekend long run. After a hill session, allow at least two days of easy recovery workouts before you attempt another quality workout. If you have
a race coming up, take a break from hill training for at least a week prior to
the event.

Find a suitable hill that is 400 to 600 metres in length, with an incline of 6 to 8%. Do a proper warm-up so that you are feeling relaxed and fluid. If after your warm-up you still feel fatigued from your previous run, do not continue with the hill session. If you feel ready, start by running four hill repeats. Add one repeat each week, to a maximum of 12 repeats. 

Going up

You will be running hard up the hill, but don’t run so fast that you lose your form. Run tall and stay light on your feet. The steeper the hill, the shorter your stride should be. Here are some tips to guide you on the way up:

  • Maintain the same stride frequency as you would on flat ground. Shorten
    your stride as you adjust to the grade.
  • Your arms should always be in rhythm with your legs. If find your leg turnover is slowing down, pump your arms a little faster and your legs will follow.
  • Keep your posture straight and tall, rather than leaning forward.
  • Keep your eyes up and look parallel to the surface of the hill.
  • Practice good form and remember to breathe!
  • Think of the power coming from your legs and try to maintain a steady effort.
    Your speed will slow slightly and increase again as you reach the crest of
    the hill.
  • Once you reach the top, keep moving at a slow jog or a walk to aid your
    recovery prior to the descent.

Coming down

Running downhill is more difficult (and poses a greater risk of injury) if you
lean back and try to put on the brakes. Rather than fight it, open your stride slightly, lean forward and away you go. Gravity will pick up your pace with no additional effort.

When you get to the bottom, don’t stop completely. Keep moving at a low speed for the same amount of time it took you to run up the hill or until your heart rate is below 120 bpm. Don’t sit down to rest, as your muscles may tighten up. Have an “active recovery” mindset during your breaks, and keep them relatively short.  If you pause too long, you may start overthinking
the task at hand and lose your positive momentum.

Intensity

You should be running uphill at 80% of your maximum heart rate. If you are not using a heart rate monitor, pace yourself so that you are running up the hill as fast as you can without having to stop and rest.

Be careful if you are doing a hill training session with a group. Remember, it is not a race but a quality, individual workout. Run to the hill and do the warm-up with the group, but the hill is yours alone to conquer at your own speed.

In addition to the physical benefits, having a successful hill workout will build your confidence level and enhance your mental preparation. On race day, when you come to an unexpected incline on the course, you can think back to your hill sessions and the character you built there. Hill training is optional for every runner, but when the going gets tough, you’ll likely be glad you did it. 

 


John Stanton is the President and Founder of the Running Room. He is the author of 10 books about running, walking and family fitness.

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