How Hill Training Works

If you train on hills you'll be able to race a hilly course with a smile on your face.
If you train on hills you'll be able to race a hilly course with a smile on your face.
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To effectively run up hills in a race, a runner must also train on hills. That's common sense, but hill training isn't about just running up long, continuous inclines -- regimens of short runs at full or near full pace up a series of small hills must also be included. This type of targeted training conditions the muscles needed to propel you up and over a hill at your goal pace without making you overly tired.

Why hill train? Hills are a part of many major marathons and other long-distance competitions, including the 12-kilometer (7.46-mile) Lilac Bloomsday Run in Spokane, Wash., and the Boston Marathon [source: Monti]. Hill training helps you prepare mentally and physically for what you'll experience on race day, and it helps you to bounce back quicker from the added exertion of a tough course so you have the fitness to speed up on the flat sections. Most people are familiar with the success of Kenyan runners who frequently win high-profile marathons. What's their primary marathon training method? You guessed it -- hill training [source: Solkin].


Moreover, running on hills provides better all-around exercise than flat terrain running. Running hills is resistance training in which the slope provides the resistance, while also forcing the cardiovascular system to work at or near its capacity. It keeps the heart rate high because the organ has to beat faster to keep up with the increased energy needed to fight gravity. Hill training burns more calories than running on a flat surface or a decline; it also boosts aerobic power almost as much as interval training [source: Cooper]. Psychologically, you can benefit from the confidence boost -- if you've trained with hills, you're not going to be as nervous during a race, and you're not going to slow down as much as you otherwise would.

Read on to find out how to train most effectively on hills.


The Hill Training Method

When beginning a hill training program, start with a short slope of about a 2 to 3 percent grade, working up to an ideal of about 5 to 10 percent. Initially, you'll want to run on gentler surfaces, such as grass or dirt, which have less of a jarring effect on the muscular and skeletal system.

Strenuous hill running once or twice a week is enough to stimulate adaptation. It will build up the quadriceps fibers, the necessary base muscles you'll need for advanced hill training [source: Cooper]. And no matter which hill training program you pick, make sure that each individual hill charge takes you at least a minute to complete. Shorter charges are less effective muscle- and endurance-building tools.


Run with your knees lifted higher than they would be in flat running, and pump your arms higher and more vigorously. The exaggerated movements help propel the body forward like a sprinter. Keep the arms and elbows at a 90 degree angle, and instead of swinging them across the body and wasting energy, swing them back and forth as you run [source: Bloom]. Lean slightly forward for momentum, but keep the body straight and aligned. It's easier to maintain this form if you keep your eyes fixed directly in front of you instead of looking at the ground. Pressing forward with your hips will prevent you from bending at the waist [source: Bloom].

It's also best to stay as relaxed as possible. For example, don't clench your fists but keep them loose (this will also eat up less energy as you pump your arms) [source: Bloom]. If you feel tenseness in your shoulders as you charge a hill, rapidly roll them forward and back for relief. If your quads feel tight -- and they probably will -- a form trick to get them feeling better is to kick the leg back slightly at the end of each stride on the incline [source: Wharton].

Read on to find out how a hill training program can help you reach your running goals.


Benefits of Hill Training

Aggressive hill training is not for novices.
Aggressive hill training is not for novices.
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Hill training is far more effective at building strength than flat running. Some of the muscles and muscle groups that are strengthened and tightened by hill running include: the calves, the glutes, hip flexors, Achilles tendons and hamstrings. Hill training works the upper body and core muscles, too. It's a full-body workout, requiring the pumping of arms, and even abdominal work that comes as a result of all that up and down repetitive movement.

But muscle efficiency is as important as muscle size and strength, and hill training, especially short hill training regimens, develop explosive, precise muscle strength. Muscle efficiency is a principle of plyometrics, a training program in which muscles are stretched, held and released as a way to create targeted, high-powered muscle action. In short, hill training gives you endurance and provides the extra boost you need to finish strong in races and sprints [source: Frailoi].


Charging a hill without thinking about how to do it first, or researching how to do it first, can be very difficult. Aggressive hill training regimens should only be attempted by experienced distance runners. These exercises require more force, or more accurately, more muscle and cardiovascular conditioning. The quadriceps and connective tissue have to be increased in their capacity gradually. If an exercise calls for two sets of 10 reps, start with just a few. Otherwise you risk tearing a muscle or even damaging a knee or rupturing an Achilles tendon.

Some other things to remember in hill training: Always slow jog after attacking or cresting a hill. It helps the muscles and heart recover. If your heart rate remains elevated after completing the descent, take a rest before you climb another hill [source: Cooper].


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bloom, Marc. "This Way Up." Runner's World. Sept. 15, 2008 (Sept. 2, 2010),7120,s6-238-263-264-12863-0,00.html
  • Cooper, Bob. "Upward Mobility." Runner's World. August 2004. (Sept. 2, 2010),7120,s6-238-263--7008-2-1-2,00.html
  • Eyestone, Ed. "Head For the Hills." Runner's World. April 2002. (Sept. 4, 2010),7120,s6-238-263-264-1877-0,00.html
  • Fraioli, Mario. "Hit the Hills." Running Times. January 2010 (Sept. 8, 2010)
  • Lydiard, Arthur and Gilmour, Garth. "Running the Lydiard Way." World Publications. 1978.
  • Mac, Brian. "Hill Training." 2010. (Sept. 9, 2010)
  • Monti, David. "Sublime Climbs." Runner's World. Sept. 10, 2008. (Sept. 2, 2010),7120,s6-238-244--12853-0,00.html
  • Nashizume, Nobby. "Lydiard 21: Understanding the Lydiard Method For the 21st Century." The Lydiard Foundation. 2004 (Sept. 9. 2010)
  • Solkin, Mindy. "The Ups and Downs of Hill Running." MarathonGuide.Com. (Sept. 10, 2010)
  • Wharton, Jim and Phil. "Learn to Run Hills." Runner's World. August 2004 (Sept. 2, 2010),7120,s6-238-263-264-9571-0,00.html