Hills...the bane of many of our existences. Many of us struggle on those hills, we get winded, our legs begin to burn, and then we see that one person that bounds up the hill like a deer and doesn't even seem to break a sweat... So how do we get there? We've put together some things that will help you conquer those hills.
DEVELOP POWER WITH LOW INJURY RISK
Many runners avoid hills because they are difficult or aren’t readily accessible. Unfortunately, the only way to become proficient at hill climbing is to practice on hills. Uphill running is a concentric movement, meaning the muscles in use shorten as they contract—similar to lifting a weight. It’s a deliberate and controlled action using the calves, glutes, hamstrings and quads. All of these muscles fire repeatedly when we run uphill and have very little recovery time even on a short ascent. You are essentially doing hundreds of one-legged squats as you ascend a hill, which is why it doesn’t take much time to raise your heart rate, breathe harder and feel a burn in your leg muscles.
The low-impact nature of running uphill allows one to practice climbing techniques and develop more power in a relatively short period of time with minimal stress to the joints and little chance of injury.
There are three basic types of hill workouts I prescribe to runners while they prepare for a hilly trail race or ultramarathon: short hill repeats, long sustained hills and hills on a long run. These workouts are an easy way to build leg strength and core power safely.
Because we don’t all have access to optimal training grounds, we must work with what we’ve got. Obviously, the best options would include trails or roads with hills similar to those you would encounter in your upcoming race. Bridge overpasses, parking garages and treadmills will all do the trick in a pinch. Take the time to discover your best training venues. You might find that your local roads supply you with better hills than the trails.
SHORT HILL REPEATS
Short hill repeats are the bread and butter of most training programs. They should be done throughout the base or building phase, and then revisited periodically as you progress towards race day. These repeats will help you with longer ascents.
Find a hill with a medium slope (six to 10 percent) that takes 45–90 seconds to ascend. Run up at an effort equivalent to your mile race effort—this will ultimately equate to roughly 5K pace as you ascend the hill. Focus on good form with powerful push off and strong arm swing. Slowly jog down the hill to recover. Depending on your fitness level, do six to 15 repeats. If you find that you still lack significant uphill drive even after doing short hill repeats for a few months, then steep hill repeats might be the way to go. They aren’t as long (only 15–30 seconds), but the hill is much steeper. These really develop power in the legs. (Adapted from Greg McMillan.)
LONG SUSTAINED HILLS
To run a sustained hill workout, find a trail or road that ascends for several miles and ideally gains between 500–1,000 feet per mile. Cover a total of four to 12 miles of uphill running miles, steadily increasing your intensity as you approach the end of the session. Depending on the length of the climb, try to sustain half marathon to marathon pace effort. If you need to repeat the same hill several times, then do so. Recover as you jog back to the bottom. This is a challenging workout and will likely leave you heavily fatigued. Repeat it several times during a season and track your fitness progression.
HILL WORK ON A LONG RUN
Run at an easy, relaxed pace (one to two minutes slower than marathon pace) during your long run, but at each hill, regardless of the size, surge at 5K to half marathon pace to the top. Recover on the downhill and flats. Regulate your pace and effort depending on the length and slope of each climb.
STRENGTH TRAINING FOR THE CLIMBS
A majority of uphill-related injuries and weaknesses occur in the Achilles, calves, glutes and hamstrings. The following exercises, if performed regularly (two to three times a week), can assist with injury prevention and facilitate rehabilitation.
HAMSTRING AND GLUTE STRENGTHENING
Uphill running forces the hamstrings and glutes to work in a limited range of motion, causing them to fatigue quickly. The following strengthening exercises will assist in hamstring and glute strength, power and elasticity.
EXERCISE BALL HAMSTRING CURLS
Lie on your back with your heels on the ball and your rear off the floor. Use your arms at your side to steady you. You should be in a straight line (head to toe). Roll the ball to your rear with your heels. Contract the hamstring at the end of the movement, relax and return to the starting position. Start with two sets of eight to ten and progress to three sets of ten.
MEDICINE BALL EXERCISES
Place one foot in front of you. Bend the exercising leg, with most of your weight focused into the heel of that foot, to 90 degrees and then return to an upright position. Keep the upper body upright as you perform the exercise. Start with 8 to 10 repetitions for each leg and build to three sets of 10 to 12.
*This exercise requires a good amount of balance and good range of motion. In order to help ease into it, you can hold on to a post or edge of a wall to help stabilize as you go down.
We rely on a powerful spring from our calves with every step as we run uphill. The exercises listed below can help prevent the overuse issues that are associated with the repetitive use of the calves, ankles and Achilles.
An exercise as simple as jumping rope not only strengthens your calves, it amps up your cardiovascular ability–which as runners is what we want, right? You don’t have to use a jump rope to do this exercise, but we argue it’s more fun to see if you can set a new jump rope record without tripping!
It can also serve as a great pre-run warm-up. Jump in place on the balls of your feet for 30-60 seconds three times. Repeat for a total for three sets.
Tip: Be sure to land on your toes rather than flat-footed. Landing on your toes is what makes this a great calf exercise–you strengthen those muscles with every jump.
Place the ball of your foot on the edge of a box, ledge or platform. Push up through the balls of your feet, raising your body upward until you are on your toes. hold for 1-2 seconds and slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat.
*For increased strength, you can add dumbbells in your hands.
Lift up your feet and walk forward on your toes for about one minute to 90 seconds. Do three to five sets for stronger calves–particularly the soleus muscle in your calf that’s responsible for plantar flexion–helping you to power off when you run. Remember, don’t let your heels touch the ground–keep them as high as you can!
If you want to get better at hills, build your strength and find ways to work hills into your workout routines. You need to run hills if you want to get good at them. The more consistent you are at running on hills and doing strength training, the easier they will get and you'll find yourself crushing it on your next race or training run.