Being a cross country runner for many years, running up hills is something that I’m very familiar with. As challenging as they can be, if you plan on signing up for a trail race, hill training can be very beneficial. If you want to increase your leg-muscle power, then hill workouts can make you a better uphill and downhill runner. I highly recommend that you get some type of hill training in before a trail race. Your body will thank you for it later.
Depending on what type of terrain you are running on, your race might determine what type of training you will be doing. For instance:
Short Hills – 30 secs to run from bottom to top with a 5-15% incline – your running source is mainly anaerobic so you should be running tall instead of leaning forward. Use your arms as momentum and keep your knees high.
Medium Hills – 30-90 seconds to run from bottom to top. Great for a middle-distance runner (15-30km) as it combines muscular endurance with an emphasis on tolerance of lactic acid.
Long Hills – 30 seconds – 3 minutes to run up. Using less power with your strides, your main energy source is aerobic but there is still an accumulation of lactic acid.
So what are some benefits of hill training?
You not only strengthen your hamstrings, calves, glutes, hip flexors, and Achilles tendons, but you also use more upper-body muscles than what you would on flat surfaces. When running up hills, your muscles contract more quickly and generate work at a higher rate, therefore becoming more powerful. Along with more power, you can also improve your stride frequency and length and develop strength endurance.
Injury prevention on hills
Whether you are a seasoned or a beginner at trail running, you should always stay properly hydrated. Ensure that you develop a solid base of strength and endurance before training on hills. Always warm-up before running up a hill or doing hill repeats. Take your time and do not exceed your training level. Pump your arms vigorously, lean slightly forward, and keep your head up. Most importantly, take a rest or recover day the following day or do an easy workout.
Types of workouts
Hill run – basic run that includes hills of varying lengths and grades
Long hill repeats – run 5-6x uphill (1/2 mile) 5-8% grade at 5km pace with jog back down as recovery
Short hill repeats – sprint 8-10 x 100 metres (15-20%) grade with jog recovery
Short downhill repeats – run 8-10 x 100 metres downhill (2-3% grade) with recovery jog uphill
Running hills forces your muscles to adapt to new stresses, therefore you become stronger. If your training involves hill repeats, move into the hill gradually by running the first couple of repeats at a moderate pace and then increase the effort as you continue. This way you won’t burn out. I see so many people start off quickly and the burn-out half way up the hill. Like any exercise, your body needs to adapt. As you become stronger and more efficient, you will be able to add more repeats. However, it’s the quality of repeats that matter and not the quantity.
If you’re not use to running downhill, ensure that you do a few repeats so that your hamstrings get use to the load. Take the downhill slow and when you are able to gain more control, then ramp up your speed.
Last by not least, the importance of recovery. Hill training is labour intense meaning that it’s a high intensity workout. Your body needs to recover at least 48 hours before completing another hard workout. Either take a day off or go easy with the cardio and weights the next day. Listen to your body. Your recover is just as important as your training days.
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