Some people love them, a lot of people loathe them. Regardless of your opinion on them, they are a great way to take training to the next level (...or to new heights...). Let’s face it, running up hills is harder and running down them (while sometimes fun) can sometimes be intimidating; or make runners feel out of control. When done wrong, running hills can lead to decreased stride efficiency, poor form, and increased impact on the downhill. However, when done right, the benefits of hill running are numerous.
Running uphill can build strength in the legs, teach and enforce good running mechanics (if done correctly), improves running efficiency, and builds cardiovascular capacity. Downhill running can improve cadence and foot speed, muscle and tendon strength in the legs, and even some core stability.
Injecting some hills into your training also provides nice variation of stride and strike patterns, rather than having (near) identical strides and landing patterns on flat ground. Ever notice how trail runs are likely to leave you exhausted, but not especially sore in one particular area? It also is a nice way to mix up the weekly runs and can prepare you specifically for races with elevation. Or, squeezed on time? Due to their difficult nature, you can get a really effective workout done in less time utilizing hills.
If you’re brand new to running or have been away from it for a while, it’s best to build some consistent runs for a few weeks before starting hills. But if you’ve been running multiple miles, multiples times per week without any significant pain/injury issues, you may look to add some hills into a run 1x/week to start, it can be as simple as crossing a couple highway overpasses to start (which will give you 30-60” of hills), or hitting up the local Butte (for those local to Eugene/Springfield, you may start with Kelly Butte, Skinner Butte, 2nd street near Dorris Ranch, Spyglass hill, or many places in South Eugene… then ‘graduate’ to Donald St., Ridgeline, Mt Pisgah or hilly trails elsewhere in the Willamette Valley). If you’re tolerating hills well and have a race or goal run that involves lots of elevation, you can certainly increase to performing multiple hill runs per week or start adding them into long runs for multivariate work.
Here are some tips specific to hill running;
Technique tips for uphill running:
1) Don’t ‘charge the hill’ to try to get it over with.
Your speed may stay steady or slow down, your step length will decrease, but your cadence (foot steps per minute) should stay the same; if anything, to maintain speed your cadence needs to speed up to counteract the shortened stride that naturally happens on a hill (speed= step frequency x step length).
2) Keep an upright posture but with a slight angle forward into the hill.
Don’t bend and lean from the hips, but imagine leaning from the ankles instead.
3) Pump those arms!
Your legs will always match your arms and you can use arm pump to force your legs to keep churning. Uphill running and sprinting are basically the two times it’s beneficial to think about pumping your arms both forward and backward; during other running, you either won’t think of it or will think of pulling elbows back.
Technique tips for downhill running:
1) Don’t lean back.
Too often, runniners lean back which forces you to essentially have the breaks on down the hill. If anything, you want to be perpendicular to the slope, which means leaning forward slightly and taking advantage of the momentum. This can be unnerving at first. The exception to this may be when running down a very steep hill that makes you feel unsafe to continue at your speed, but this is unlikely to happen on roads that are built to specific civic safety standards… it could be the case on some trails though.
2) Don’t overstride.
Your cadence should definitely increase going downhill. Taking too large of a step leads to having a heavy heel strike far out in front of the center of mass, which then creates a large backwards force against your forward motion (Newton’s third law: equal and opposite forces). You want your foot to land closer under your body to reduce this backwards (braking) force.
3) Allow your arms to help your balance.
The two tips above may make you feel a bit unwieldy, so allow your arms to swing further- both forward/backwards and also a bit out from your sides. Though we normally want elbows tucked pretty close to the body, this is a time where a little outward flail might be worth it if balances you and allows for a faster descent.
Some of these take practice, it can feel choppy and awkward to shorten your stride uphill and downright scary to try to shorten your stride and lean forward on a downhill. Some techniques you can put into action immediately (like leaning forward and pumping the arms) and others you might want to try on a gentler slope and not bombing downhill. Improving on hills takes conscious practice, but the more you do, the stronger you’ll feel and the better you’ll become.
Comment below with what your favorite type of hill workout is and how you fit it into your training.