Three Workouts for Better Hill Running

Friday, September 12, 2014 | By Carrie Barrett
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Three Workouts for Better Hill Running

Many runners embrace tactics of a goal pace run, or even a speed interval on the track. Those workouts are measurable and simple to execute. “Tell me what pace to go, and I'll do it,” you say with confidence. Feelings are mixed, however, when the workout turns to hill training. Many runners avoid regular hill training because, well, it's hard. Depending on the grade of the hill, lactic acid builds quickly, our heart rate shoots up, several muscles fire all at once, and we tire quickly. Unfortunately, the only way to become proficient at ascending and descending hills is to run on hills. Athletes can see and feel the benefits quickly, especially if they know what effort level to push and recover appropriately.

Some of those many benefits of hill training include:

  • Increase in power
  • Strength building and muscle recruitment
  • Improvement in proper run form
  • Minimal stress on joints
  • Increase in aerobic capacity and VO2 max

Since you know that hill training has these and other benefits, the question becomes how and when to incorporate them into your training, especially if your race course is a hilly one. Here are three main hill workouts, all of which are beneficial to training.

1. Short and Medium Hill Repeats 

The focus of these short workouts is on speed, power and anaerobic energy recruitment. In general, these repeats should take about 20 to 90 seconds and your effort level should very high, an 8-10 on the rate of perceived exertion scale, if not all out in very short bursts. The grade should be relatively steep. Because you will be working extremely hard for a short period of time, your recovery time will be longer, one to two minutes, in order to bring breathing and heart rate back to normal. If you are using heart rate training, these short bursts will be in Zone 4-5, with a recovery back to Zone 1-2. Your pace for short hill repeats will be faster than your race pace goal and medium length hills will be near or slightly above your race pace goal.

Make sure you are completely recovered before you start the next repeat in order to ensure proper form and complete the required amount of repetitions. Depending on the distance race for which you are training, start with a few repeats and gradually increase the repetitions throughout your training cycle. These short repeats are great to do during your base building phase, too, as they will help you with longer runs in the future.

2. Long Sustained Hills

When you are doing long hill climbs, the focus is more on aerobic energy recruitment and less about power and speed. These hills climbs can take up to three minutes, so it's important to start slower and manage your pacing throughout the climb. Your perceived exertion will be approximately 6-8 on a scale of one to 10. Depending on the grade, your heart rate may reach zone 4 towards the end of the climb, but the goal is to maintain it at a lower zone and think about form. Use an efficient elbow swing, quick cadence, and high knees. Long distance runners training for a hillier course will benefit from these workouts as it does build muscular and aerobic endurance.

Again, make sure you are completely recovered back to Zone 1-2 before you start the next repeat Depending on the distance race for which you are training, start with a few repeats and gradually increase the repetitions throughout your training cycle.

3. Hilly Long Runs

These runs are incredibly valuable, especially if your race is on a hillier course. These workouts need to be frequent during your build stages after you've built a solid injury-free base. Mixed hilly runs can be attacked in several different ways:

Race Pace Training: If you are doing a long run, work on including some miles at or near your race pace goal. Start with one or two miles at first, and then gradually build the number of goal pace miles as your training progresses.

Fartlek Hills: You can also structure your run where you “attack” the hill climbs at a faster pace and use the downhills and flat sections to recover and settle in to your long run pace. Essentially, you are doing a fartlek style hilly run.

Progressive Pace: Another strategy for a long hill run is to create a progressive pace and gradually get faster throughout the run. It's imperative to start slow and avoid the temptation to attack every hill at the beginning so that you can conserve the energy for hills at the end of your run. Try to end your hilly run at or near your race goal pace.

In addition to uphill form, it's equally vital to practice running downhill with proper form, relaxed with a forward lean. Try not to let your legs get too far out front as it can be jarring and “put on the brakes” instead of acceleration.

Make sure you've built up a solid mileage base before adding in too many hill workouts. Also, do not stack too many hill repeat workouts in a row. More than likely, your muscles will be sore when you begin these workouts on a regular basis and you will need several days of recovery.

Whether you're building strength or going for a personal best, hill training will complete a well-rounded training regime and help you to become a more complete athlete. 

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