How hills can help

Many athletes include hill running in their training plans, but there is more to hills than you might think, writes AW Coaching Editor David Lowes

Posted on December 24, 2012 by
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Hill running coaching (Mark Shearman)

Hill training is done throughout the year by many athletes from most disciplines and all to varying degrees – no pun intended!

Hill work can lead to an increase in power, improve lactate tolerance, improve hill running ability in races and boost mental toughness.

The event targeted by the athlete and the local environment are the starting points in designing a hill session. It’s quite obvious that a sprinter may not get the same benefits as an endurance athlete doing a voluminous three minute repetition workout and the endurance athlete may not get the same adaptation from a steep 15 sec flatout ascent that the speedsters will attack with relish, although to develop a powerful sprint finish these will undoubtedly help.

A little thought and investigation into what hills you have in your locality will not only help to individualise any session, but also add much needed variety.

Most athletes will categorise their hills as either short and steep or long with a more sympathetic gradient. Nothing is wrong with either, but variation is essential in any athlete’s training plan and some suggestions will be offered later to make any hill workout that little bit different from the norm as well as providing specificity so that maximum gains can be made.

Form

Good form is essential and that means a vigorous arm action, strong leg extension, good toeoff, exaggerated kneelift, hips held high, slight forward lean and head and eyes fixated 810 metres ahead. The stride will also be shorter depending on the severity of the incline.

Form can deteriorate as the session progresses and, depending on fitness levels and especially for youngsters, this is when the repetitions should be cut down and/ or broken into sets. Instead of doing 12×35 seconds, for example, perhaps 2x6x35 seconds or even 3x4x35 seconds with a suitable recovery between sets may prove to be more productive until the athlete becomes strong enough to handle more continuous volume. When form and posture deteriorate, the levers that propel you up (or down) the hill will not be working in unison and that is when extra stresses may be put on certain body parts which in effect will not be working in equilibrium.

Session types

The inclines and durations mentioned below are important, but it depends on what hills you have locally.

More and steeper aren’t necessarily the best way forward. Further, if you are new to hill training, be careful not to do too many in the first few sessions – although you use the same muscles as on the flat, you use them much more forcibly and running mechanics are exaggerated. You may experience aches and soreness until you adapt to them. The affect can be similar to doing lots of lunges and stepups in the gym.

Hill running is essentially speed or speed-strength endurance work against a resistance and, the stronger that resistance (gradient or surface), the harder the work will become and recovery times will need to be addressed thoughtfully. All the sessions described have been used and tested by those of differing abilities and ages. However, anyone trying them should consult their coach as to the length, gradient, time, recovery, surface and frequency.

Short hills

10-25 seconds – ideally use a 35-45 degree incline

Used for power and usually done very quickly and explosively. These hills are great for sprinters and explosive athletes. The short-distance sprinters may break these into short bursts of activity across 2-4 sets with only 3-6 reps per set. The recovery may be a timed interval or a walk-back down to the start to allow for full recuperation. A word of caution: don’t try to be macho and choose the steepest hill that even a mountain goat would struggle with. An incline that is too severe will put great stresses on the lower back, hamstrings, calves and the Achilles tendon as well as the quadriceps and shins when coming back down.

Advanced and elite power athletes may even include bounding up an incline, although this is very difficult and could cause injury, therefore should not be attempted by lesser mortals and the advice of a knowledgeable coach is essential.

Medium hills

25-45 seconds – ideally use a 25-35 degree incline

These types of hills can be targeted by sprinters and middle-distance athletes alike and include a mixture of power and lactate-improving benefits. The long-distance sprinters may break their repetitions into sets, such as 2-3x4x45 seconds, while the middle-distance exponents may target one set involving 12-14 repetitions. The recoveries can be a timed interval or a walk back for the sprinters, while the middle-distance athletes will use a jog back down to prevent their heart rate from dropping too low.

Long hills

45 seconds – 3min (and above) – ideally use a 15 to 25 degree incline

These are almost exclusively done by middle to long-distance athletes who are seeking lactate-tolerance improvements. For a hill repetition of more than two minutes, the resulting recovery can be deemed to be too long for elite athletes so in some cases the coach has transported them in their car back to the bottom, although this is not practical for a big-group club session.

Examples of sessions for mature athletes are: 10-14x1min, 6-8x2min and 5-6x3min – all working the hill hard. An inventive version of long hills (1min) for those who want to cut down on their recoveries without having the luxury of being transported back to the start is: run to the top (1min), jog halfway down, returning to the top again (30sec), jog to the bottom, run up to halfway again (30sec), jog once more to the bottom and embarking on the full hill again (1min) – repeat this cycle at least 4-6 times.

Kenyan hills

Named after the type of work the Kenyan athletes do in their natural environment.

A typical session of these is run on a predetermined loop course (600m-1000m is ideal) and can be done either for time or a certain number of laps. The course should ideally include at least an uphill, a downhill and a flat section where the runner can run hard up the hill and on the flat before using the downhill section as a recovery jog. 20-30 minutes is a typical duration and these can be very hard indeed and the finishing distance covered should be noted so that comparisons can be made in future sessions.

Downhill

One of the most neglected aspects of hillwork is downhill running and these have many benefits and some dangers. The decline should not be a steep one – 15-25 degrees would be ideal. The two main reasons to do downhill running are to improve the ability to run down a slope efficiently and help with stride-length deficiencies. Those who run cross-country races may suffer the frustration of pulling away from their competitors easily on any uphill section, only to lose those gains and more on a downhill. It’s all about relaxing and technique: good forward lean, loose quadriceps and hamstrings, a long, loping stride and light and quick feet – these all need to be practised regularly if the athlete is not a natural downhill runner.

It is best to avoid tarmac for this type of work, especially for youngsters whose growth plates will still be developing. The best surface is grass. A typical session would be 10-16×30-40sec with a slow, uphill jog recovery.

Big dipper

This is an accumulation of both an uphill and a downhill workout in one session. It can be hard, but also very beneficial. For example, the athlete runs up a 40-sec hill with a 15- 25 degree incline and once at the top takes a 30-60sec recovery before descending back down the hill 8-10sec faster. A session example can be 12 times up and down.

Strength and speed are practised in one session and the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves are given a great workout. Due to the session being more interval-based, the heart rate is kept high throughout especially with shorter recoveries.

Over the top

These sessions are a good way of adapting the basic session that you have been doing and helping to improve your ability to run over the top of a hill strongly in a race while building the ability to tolerate ever-increasing levels of lactic acid. If your basic session has been 12x40sec at the beginning of the season, then the most obvious way to advance it is to increase the number of repetitions to 14 and then eventually 16.

However, many races are won – and lost, not by who runs strongly up a hill, but by the one who can keep moving at pace off the top of the incline on to the flat and get back into their rhythm the quickest with minimal energy loss. Therefore, the basic 12x40sec hill session can be advanced every three weeks by adding 20-30 metres on to it whereby the athlete runs hard off the top.

Eventually, this can be built up to at least 100 metres or more of extra running and it has the benefit of giving the athlete extra confidence that even when fatigued they know they can pick the pace up despite being in discomfort.

Flat bottom

A variation on a theme, this is another adaptation of the basic 12×40-sec session above. This time the athlete starts on a flat section 50 metres from where the incline commences and runs at “cross country” pace before attacking the hill. The distance from the start of the hill can be increased every three weeks as part of the adaptation process. When the athlete is beginning to master this session the big adaptation is moving on to “flat bottom” and “over the top” (start 50 metres from the bottom of the 40sec hill and then keep running 50 metres over the top). Advancements can be made until the athlete runs 100m or more before and after the hill.

Long-run Fartlek

Depending on the amount of hills you have at your disposal, you could do a 10-12 mile run at a steady-state until you encounter a hill and attack it with gusto. If you haven’t enough hills in your area, consider running on a smaller 2-3 mile loop course where enough reasonable inclines can be used.

This Fartlek may, for example, include four short low-intensity inclines of around 100 metres, three medium gradients varying from 50-100 metres and one long steeper gradient of 400 metres. Care must be taken with this type of run as it can end up as one long hard run, which is not the purpose of the session. You need to consider carefully where runs such as these fit into the training plan, including one or more recovery days before the next hard session. Caution should be taken for those who live in hilly or mountainous localities where even an easy or steady run may involve working at higher levels than those who do their runs on a relatively flat route – recovery is paramount.

Mixed hills

These are similar to the aforementioned long-run Fartlek but are done on a much smaller area with three or four different hills in fairly close proximity. Ideally, the athlete does a 2-3 mile warm-up and then as an example, an 800m incline is run fairly hard and a recovery jog of around 800m is done before embarking on a different hill of say 400m with a similar recovery jog before moving on again to a 600m hill and then jogging to the final hill of 200m where three repetitions are done. The athlete then completes their session with a 2-3-mile cool-down. This offers the athlete great variety and differing gradients and can be changed from time-to-time depending on the accessibility of the hills.

The surface

Some thought should be given as to where you do your hill running. Grass is the ideal surface, but you can only use it in daylight hours and underfoot traction can become slippery and if you choose to wear normal road trainers, can lead to foot and leg muscles becoming tight. However, although spikes are not advised, trail shoes are a great option offering security and peace of mind for the athlete.

Most athletes will use road and pavements for their sessions and, while the plyometric effect going up is perfect, the descent if done too quickly can put a great deal of stress on knees, shins and back. Always use your normal cushioned road shoes for these and never change in to racing flats – the extra weight and support of your day-to-day trainers will give great benefits when you eventually come to race. Trails can offer a slightly better option with more “give” than tarmac and these may be the best option if the weather is particularly wet and soggy underfoot.

Sand dunes are a great variation if you live near to a suitable beach. Take into account the added extra effort that is needed to propel yourself through the soft sand and the time and repetitions should be reduced to allow for this.

Remember, sand is an extra resistance, so expect fatigue like you’ve never experienced before. Too much constant work on soft sand can lead to style implications – a short, shuffling stride, reduced knee-lift and low hips. It is a good idea to finish any soft sand work with some fast strides on hard and compacted sand or trails to remind the body to run naturally.

If you live in a very flat location or if weather conditions such as snow or ice restrict training, you can always go indoors and use a treadmill at a suitable speed and incline to do some of the above sessions in a comfortable and safer environment.

Use hill training wisely and you’ll not only be physically stronger than your competitors, you’ll be mentally tougher too!

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