Spotlight on Hills

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Hills. Love them or hate them, they’re so good for us runners in many ways! I personally have a love/hate relationship with hills, but I run them for two reasons: 1) It’s pretty impossible to avoid them where I live, and 2) the benefits are amazing! However, many of us aren’t getting the most out of our hill running. We run up and down them with inefficient form, we choose hills that are too big or steep and don’t give ourselves enough time to recover. We let them defeat us. I’m here to help you learn how to love and embrace hills rather than fight them- and how to use them to become a stronger, better runner.

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I am part of a local Moms Run This Town group, and was invited to talk to the ladies in a hill clinic this afternoon. We met near a local running path, discussed why running hills is great for you, how to have proper uphill and downhill running form, different types of hill workouts, and more. Then we did a warmup and some hill repeats. I did a few then I watched the ladies and gave them feedback on their form. Finally, we celebrated our hard work with snacks and cupcakes 🙂 I wanted to write a post about the information I shared with these fabulous ladies, because I think it can benefit all of us! Below are the tips I gave to the women in a handout I made, and then we used these tips to practice form on both a long, steady hill (1:30-2:00 minutes to get up) and a shorter, steeper hill (20-30 seconds up). 

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WHY RUN HILLS?

  • Hill running improves both strength and speed.
  • Running up hills forces the knees to lift higher, which is great for runners because this helps develop optimal stride speed and length.
  • It also develops your slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, which increases overall strength and power.

RUNNING UPHILL

  • Take smaller steps up hills. Shorter, quicker strides keep your power and center of gravity underneath your body which makes you run up the hill more efficiently.
  • Keep your torso tall, head and neck up. Try not to slouch.
  • Look to the crest of the hill rather than straight down.
  • Drive your elbows back rather than across your body.
  • Keep your hands relaxed rather than in fists. Loose hands help the whole body stay relaxed.

RUNNING DOWNHILL

  • Running downhill causes stress/eccentric contractions on the quadriceps and lower legs. This can lead to ankle, hip, and knee injuries if not done correctly, and is why there are a lot more tips on form for running downhill compared to uphill!
  • Let gravity do some of the work while still maintaining control.
  • Don’t look straight down at your feet, look 10-15 feet in front of you like you are holding a piece of fruit under your chin.
  • Maintain an upright posture, lean forward slightly from ankles, engage your core. Align your upper body over your lower body or slightly ahead of it, which battles your natural tendency to lean backwards and slow down.
  • Shorten your stride and quicken your cadence. Lighter steps will help you land more on your mid-foot and not cause you to use your heel as a brake.
  • Keep a slight bend in the leg that is landing so that your knee doesn’t absorb all the impact.
  • Keep your arm swing under control. A shortened arm swing will help you keep your stride short.

TYPES OF WORKOUTS

  • 3 main ways to do hill training:
    1. Long hill runs for endurance (sprinkling hills throughout your short and long runs)
    2. Long hill reps for strength (1-5 minutes to get up the hill)
    3. Short hill reps for speed (30-60 seconds to get up the hill)
  • No matter which type of hill workout you choose, always warm up first with at least 10-15 minutes of easy running. Allow yourself to fully recover after hill efforts by slowing down your pace, walking or even stopping to rest entirely if needed to bring your heart rate back down again. Finally, make sure to cool down with slower running or walking once you are finished.
  • When beginning to incorporate hills into your routine, start small and build gradually. It’s best to sprinkle these different types of hill workouts into your training 1-2x a week.
  • Start with 3-4 hill reps and then add on when you feel you can. Aim for 15-20 minutes of solid hill work if you are newer to hills, and 20-30 minutes if you are more experienced.
  • Preview course elevation maps and try to match your training to what the course demands. For example, if you’re training for a race that has a large hill toward the end, throw one into the end of your long runs. This will help you teach your body (and your mind!) to get up hills on tired legs. Or if you have a race coming up that has rolling hills through the entire course, try to do some long runs on routes that are similar.

PACING/EFFORT

  • General rule: Easier on the way up, faster on the way down.
  • Work with the flow of the terrain and the hill rather than against it.
  • Two approaches:
    1. By effort – Aim to keep a steady, consistent effort during all of your hill repeats. This teaches your body to run efficiently even when it’s tired. Depending on your goals, the length of the hill or the grade, the effort level you aim for may vary. I like to use the 1-10 scale: Long hill reps would be about a 6-7, and short hill reps would be about 8-9.
    2. By pace – You can also try to complete each hill repetition within a certain time or at a certain pace, depending on your goals.
  • NOTE: No matter which approach to pacing/effort you choose- be careful when trying to run hills fast. Sometimes focusing too much on speed can cause us to lose control of form.
  • A simple rule of thumb is to finish every hill repeat workout with just enough left in the tank to run one more repeat if you had to.

MIND GAMES & STRATEGIES

  • Counting steps as you run up to take your mind off it. You can also compare the number of steps you take for each repeat. Ideally if you’re maintaining the same level of effort you should be taking around the same amount of steps.
  • Mantras (“Up and over,” “Embrace the hill,” “Just a couple minutes of my life,” “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you”)
  • Visualization: springing up the hill, running mountains, etc. Whatever motivates you to get you up the hill… DO IT!

I hope this post will help as you tackle those hills! Remember, don’t be afraid to do the hard work. It will only make you stronger inside and out!

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What are your favorite hill running tips? Do you have any mind games, mantras, or favorite hill workouts to share?

My other “Running Tips” posts:

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One response to “Spotlight on Hills

  1. Pingback: Baby 2.0 – 35 Weeks | Run Inspired

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