The secrets to improving your hill running
Hills. Love them, or hate them, running on the trails you can’t avoid them. For many of us, they are a great excuse to walk, as we know we will spend too much energy running up them. Although walking has its place, perhaps we shouldn’t give up on running them, or at least some of them just yet.
As we run up a hill the fatigue levels rise and rise and eventually we slow to a walk as we know we can’t sustain the intensity needed to run anymore. But then you get passed by someone who seems to be floating effortlessly up the hill. How do they do it? What’s the secret to be able to run uphills in an ultra and not expend large amounts of energy?
The answer is not a simple one and has many parts but let’s explore them and see how you can improve your hill running ability.
An interesting study* compared three different types of athletes – middle distance runners, cross country skiers and triathletes, and found that although the middle distance runners were faster on flat terrain on a climb of 12% all the athletes performed basically the same. The key factor was the athletes VO2max, not which sport they trained for.
Now this was a test where you run up a 12% incline on a treadmill at an ever increasing speed until you can run no longer, so it’s not exactly the same as running a steady pace up a hill in an ultra, but it does indicate that improving your VO2max might be a good idea. Some good sessions to do this are hills of 3-7 minutes – all out efforts with long recovery and around 20 minutes of total uphill running. For these sessions focus on driving through the hips, don’t shorten your stride to baby steps. Train those glutes to give you more power and propel you up the hill.
Even though running uphill places less strain on the majority of the muscles of the body as there are less landing forces it does load the calves more so best to ease into this. Start at a pace that feels like a steady workout and finish feeling like you could do more. As the weeks go by increase the pace until it’s an all-out hands-on-knees-gasping-for-air type workout.
Once you’ve developed your VO2max (and keep in mind not everyone responds to VO2max training so if you are finding very little improvement then move onto this second phase sooner) we then need to increase the time we are able to run up a hill. For this phase you will need to decrease the speed slightly but increase the total time spent running uphill to 30-60 minutes. An example session might be 4 x 10 minute hills.
So far VO2max hills and tempo hills are at intensities far above what you would do in a race. So we need to train the body to use that strength and fitness gained into a more race like situation.
We can do this a number of ways. A favourite session of mine is a 2 hour hill rep session – steady pace up and down – aiming to keep consistent for the whole 2 hours. The intensity is well below threshold but above easy pace and the length of hill you should use is dependant on the hills in the race you are training for and what hills you have access to. If your race has lots of little undulations then pick a smaller hill and do lots of reps. If you are training for an alpine race then 2 reps of a 45 minute hill would be ideal. You may need to build up to this starting off with 15 minutes and working your way up.
The aim here is to teach your legs that they can run up a hill at a pace a little faster than easy and maintain that for a long period of time.
Integrating into a long run
Now you are capable of running up a hill for a couple of hours it’s time to include this session into a long run. In a 4 hour run include 2 hours of steady up and down a hill. Initially do this session at the start of the run so you are doing it on fresh legs but eventually change to incorporating it into the last half so you get used to running on tired legs.
Hill running technique
Running uphill quickly and running up a hill that’s 30 minutes long in an ultra is vastly different. Running up short hills you can power up with stride length similar to running on the flat but for most hills in an ultra we need to conserve energy. To do this, shorten your stride as it helps reduce the energy cost, which allows you to run up hills for longer. Watch your head position as we have a tendency to drop our heads and look at our feet. Whilst leaning forward into the hill is a good thing, hunching over too much is not. The angle of lean should be reflective of the incline of the hill.
Run vs walk
At some point walking will be quicker, learning when that is makes a big difference to keeping your effort levels steady during a race. In training, on your long run hill repeats, mix up walking a hill and running a hill and see the time difference. You’ll soon figure out when you should be walking. For more info on developing your ability to walk in an ultra see here.
Alternating running and walking
Some hills are too long or steep to run the entire way, but alternating between the two can get you to the top without burning that much more energy than walking the whole way, and a lot quicker. Practise switching between the two in training eg 2 minutes run 1 minute walk and repeat up a 15 minute climb. Don’t use the walk as recovery – keep the pace up. Your heart rate will drop slightly when walking anyway usually enough to allow you to run again. Knowing how fast to run and to walk allows you to keep the pace relatively even for the whole climb without going too high and burning too much energy.
Increasing the strength of your glutes and calves can make a big difference on your climbing ability. Choose exercises that are running specific and stay away from anything involving you lying on the floor or using dynabands. Squats, lunges, jumping and hopping are far more beneficial.
Many of us look at hills in a negative way, unless it’s too steep to run and then it’s a relief as we get a walking break! If you dread running up hills then it’s unlikely you are ever going to be very good at it. Learn to enjoy the challenge of running uphills, see it as a way of testing yourself, getting a break on a fellow runner, putting some time in the bank for later – anything as long as it’s positive. Don’t dread your hill training session either, yes they are hard but if you wanted something easy you wouldn’t be doing this sport! For more help with developing mental strength you can read my article here.
Of course, what goes up, must come down. For tips on downhill training click here.
*Paavolainen, L.; Nummela, A.; Rusko, H., Muscle power factors and VO2 max as determinants of horizontal and uphill running performance. Scandanavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 2000, 10 (5), 286-291.