The Complete Runner’s Guide to Hill Running – Everything YOU Need to Know
Hill running certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.
It is a grueling, repetitive process that requires both mental and physical strength.
However, the rewards that come with it certainly make all the effort worthwhile.
The best part about running hills?
You don’t need an expensive membership or any special equipment to see huge benefits from your training in a relatively short time span.
Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned veteran, this article will provide you with all you need to know about hill running while also giving you some great workouts to try.
Let’s dive in!
- What are the Benefits of Hill Running?
- Some Great Tips for Running Uphill
- What are Some Tips for Running Downhill?
- Some Good Breathing Techniques for Hill Running
- Great Hill Running Workouts for YOU
- What About Running on an Incline Treadmill?
What are the Benefits of Hill Running?
Generally speaking, hill running is an effective exercise because it increases both the intensity and overall difficulty of a run.
As a result, your speed, power, focus, anaerobic capacity, and overall endurance also improve over time.
As you climb a hill, your heart is forced to pump faster – this serves to gradually increase endurance and the efficiency of the cardiorespiratory system.
But why is that so important?
During an intense anaerobic exercise, energy is produced very quickly but in very short supply.
The more difficult a hill is to climb, the shorter our energy supply. However, as our body adjusts over an extended training program consisting of both ascending AND descending hills, our overall endurance level improves.
Another benefit of hill running is an increase in power and muscle strength.
The consistent incline forces our muscles to work harder in order to power ourselves uphill. Your knees need to be lifted higher than they do during a standard run – this motion will help to maximize stride length and overall speed on level ground as well.
Since speed is a top priority for many runners, it’s important to fully understand exactly why running hills can make you so much quicker.
Jo Pavey, an elite long distance runner from Britain, brilliantly sums it up with the following quote:
Running gait also changes while climbing and descending hills – this really helps activate fast-twitch muscle fibers more than they usually are during a standard run on flat ground.
The muscles of the upper body are also activated when climbing up a hill, as the incline forces you to drive your arms harder.
Of course, mental strength is also positively affected by hill running – if you train enough on hills to get comfortable facing a steep incline, flat ground – even over longer distances – will almost start to seem inviting!
The sight of a hill during the middle of a long run will also become far less intimidating.
The benefits of hill running don’t only come from the uphill portion either.
Running downhill can raise foot speed, increase efficiency, and vastly improve range of motion.
Descending a hill also causes your muscles to break down in a different way based on how each step affects the quads and lower legs.
It stimulates growth in these same muscles, as they need to be repaired after the conclusion of the run.
This next benefit somewhat surprised me, as it doesn’t seem overly obvious – running hills likely helps to reduce your chances of running-related injury.
It makes sense, when you think about it – if your muscles are used to performing on various inclines, it serves to protect them from strain when pushed to the limit in other situations.
Finally, many runners hit a point where they brush up against a psychological and/or physical plateau.
In other words, they get used to a routine and stop getting the most out of themselves during a workout.
Charging up and down a steep incline changes all of that. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and towards progress and self-improvement.
Some Great Tips for Running Uphill
Now that we’ve covered the numerous benefits of hill running, let’s shift focus to the technical aspects of properly climbing uphill.
It’s easy to lose focus when reading about proper form – it’s not exactly the most exciting topic.
These tips are extremely useful and can help you get the most out of your training.
How many times have you heard the phrase “lean into the hill”?
I know that I have hard some version of that advice many times over. The problem is that things aren’t quite that simple – the chest MUST be kept up and wide-open.
- Hunching or leaning forward at the waist is a huge no-no.
- So, while it is important to lean forward, it should come from the hips. The rest of your body should be kept straight and open to maximize breathing efficiency.
- This includes the head and eyes – it is sometimes extremely tempting to direct your gaze straight downward, especially when you are tired. However, this works against you by closing off your airway and preventing proper breathing technique.
- Try to look 25 meters ahead of you – this will keep everything properly aligned and combat slouching.
- Your arms should propel you forward and move straight up and down in the direction of the top of the hill. They should never be moving side to side.
- That’s almost it – remember to keep your knees up, especially as you start to get fatigued. This will help you get the most power out of your stride, which ultimately gets you to the top faster.
- Finally, ensure that you keep your toes pointed towards the ground at the ankle before each stride comes into contact with the ground. Then use the ball of your foot to explode off the ground when it touches down. This will help preserve energy and maximize stride efficiency.
There you have it – if you follow all of these basic hill running form suggestions, you’ll be flying up hills in no time!
What are Some Tips for Running Downhill?
Although it might seem like ascending a hill would require more focus on running form and technique, that’s not necessarily true at all.
It’s certainly very important to ensure that your stride and body position are both excellent when going downhill as well.
- Chest position should be fairly similar – up, open, and not slouching down towards the surface of the ground.
- Your head should remain level, which will help keep both eyes looking ahead of you – this requires constant focus as the downward momentum will naturally pull your head downwards.
- Arms should be extremely relaxed and moving directly forward and backward instead of side to side.
- Your legs shouldn’t be landing too far ahead of you (minimize extension) as this will put unnecessary pressure on the heel.
- Instead, try and land on the midfoot area – this will help you stay in control while also maintaining velocity. Use the slope of the hill and gravity to naturally form stride length.
- Another key thing to remember is to avoid leaning too far backwards during a steep decent. Although your body will want to slow down momentum by forcing your weight backwards, that often makes things much worse – especially in terms of overall control.
- However, leaning too far forward is also a big problem. By keeping your weight over your feet and finding the balance between shifting your weight too far in either direction, you get the best of BOTH worlds – you use momentum from the hill to maintain speed while also staying in control.
I am a big believer in visual learning – it is one thing to listen to or read a description about hill running, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to immediate success in the real world 100% of the time.
It can often be very helpful to watch a physical demonstration to really get dialed in and help put everything into practice.
Here’s a great video that summarizes some of what I was talking about:
Proper Form for Uphill and Downhill Running
Some Good Breathing Techniques for Hill Running
Part of the reason why maintaining good form while ascending/descending hills is so important is because it allows our respiratory system to function properly.
Here’s the truth:
If enough oxygen isn’t transferred to our muscles quickly enough, our performance while running will suffer greatly.
Running hills pushes our body to the limit – as it becomes more and more fatigued, it’s easy to lose composure and proper breathing technique.
Try and breathe (inhale AND exhale) mostly through your mouth – this is the most efficient style of breathing when running hills.
Avoid “chest breathing”, as it doesn’t allow for maximum intake or outtake – not enough air gets in and excess air gets trapped in the lungs on the way out.
Breathing during hill running should be diaphragmatic – this means that the process of inhaling and exhaling extends all the way down to your stomach.
Finally, try and establish a steady and consistent breathing rhythm while running.
The stress and mental exhaustion from a particularly tough ascent – especially when done repeatedly in a short time span – can make it tempting to take shallow or uneven breaths.
Don’t fall prey to that bad habit!
Move forward at a pace that allows you to take deep, consistent inhales and slow, steady exhales.
It’s far better to move slightly slower and find a steady breathing rhythm than move too quickly and need to gasp for air.
Great Hill Running Workouts for YOU
There is no “one size fits all” hill running workout, as much of what goes into formulating a useful routine when training on an incline is totally dependent on how experienced a runner you are.
Having said that, any workout on hills can be beneficial in some way.
A warm-up routine or rest day mobility exercise for an experienced runner may be a challenging day for a relative beginner.
This guide will provide 5 great hill workouts that I’ve broken down into beginner and intermediate/advanced.
Of course, there is no rule that says you can’t adjust these workouts slightly to better fit your particular skill level or training goals.
Finding a routine or workout that keeps you engaged and motivated is always the most important thing to keep in mind!
Before we dive into the sample workouts, remember that hill running takes a much greater toll on the body than a standard run on flat ground does.
This means that we really need to be vigilant about the post-workout diet and recovery.
A good rule of thumb is to limit hill sessions to once or twice a week.
Workout #1 – Short Hill Sprints
4-5 reps of 55-75 yards for beginners, 8-12 reps of 55-75 yards for intermediate/advanced.
A fantastic exercise for a variety of “short burst” athletes, (hockey, football, baseball, etc.) this workout will strengthen fast AND slow twitch muscle fibers.
It will also help promote leg strength and overall endurance.
The workout itself is relatively straightforward – find a hill with a decent incline and sprint 60-80 meters at 90% maximum speed.
This burst should last for about 10-15 seconds before you stop forward momentum and slowly walk back down the hill. Your recovery period should last between 2-3 minutes per rep to start.
Repeat this process at least 4-5 times up to a maximum of 8-12 times – whatever meshes best with your training goals and experience level.
As your body gets used to whatever version of this workout you chose to start with, play around with it!
Instead of walking back down and waiting 2-3 minutes for your next rep, shorten recovery time. Sprint for a wider variety of distances (30 or 100 yards, for example).
Workout #2 – Long Hill Up-Downs
4-5 reps of 60 second climbs for beginners, 6-8 reps of 90-120 second climbs for intermediate/advanced.
A classic “tried and true” hill workout, this exercise does wonders for slow twitch muscles while also improving aerobic and anaerobic power.
It’s important to find a hill with a medium to steep grade for this particular workout, as the power needed to run up a hill with a decent incline really pushes the body to the limit.
Beginners should aim to complete 4-5 reps of 60 second climbs while resting for 3-4 minutes in between each rep. Rest should come upon completion of the downhill portion of the hill – it’s important to run on the way down for this particular workout as well.
This workout will do wonders for your mental strength as well – by the 4th or 5th rep, it will be very important to keep up positive self-talk while also staying completely focused on technique and form.
It’s always tempting to let yourself go into “auto-pilot” mode on the way down – don’t let that happen!
Effort should hover around 70-75% of maximum speed for the duration of the entire workout.
This will help prevent injury and allow you enough time to recover in between reps.
Workout #3 – Hill Bounding
60 seconds up, 2-3 minutes light jogging per rep – repeat 4-8 times.
This workout is a fantastic way to increase running – specifically, strength.
Hill bounding will also help to improve form while directly building power and speed at the same time.
The quadriceps and ankles are the main benefactors from this particular exercise – although the calves and hamstrings certainly get activated as well.
If you work this into your hill routine, push off power from the ground into the rest of your stride will see a MONSTER increase.
The timing and tempo of hill bounding can be tough to pin down – practice makes perfect.
This video from the Lydiard Foundation really helped me when I was first getting used to this particular workout:
Look for a hill with a 7-10% grade that has a flat area for recovery jogging after each uphill portion.
Workout #4 – Hill Pyramid
1-2 reps for beginners, 3-4 for intermediate/advanced.
Let’s be honest here: hill running can get boring at times.
The scenery doesn’t change all that much and going up and down is sometimes tedious and repetitive.
That’s why I love to mix things up occasionally with a pyramid workout – it keeps things fresh and exciting!
Start by running 1-2 miles on flat ground at 50-75% of maximum effort.
Next comes the hill portion of the workout (remember to recover on the way down before starting the next step of the pyramid):
- 60 seconds up at 85% of maximum effort.
- 45 seconds up at 90% of maximum effort.
- 30 seconds up at 95% of maximum effort.
- 15 seconds up at 100% of maximum effort.
After each rep of the entire pyramid, take a five-minute rest break before starting again from the beginning.
I promise this workout will keep things fun!
Workout #5 – Downhill Strides
5-6reps for beginners, 9-10 for intermediate/advanced.
This wouldn’t be a complete guide to hill running if a downhill workout wasn’t included as well.
As mentioned previously, maintaining good form and mental awareness while descending a hill is just as important as it is when you are making your ascent.
Downhill running workouts also have a ton of health benefits as well, especially strength-wise.
This workout requires a long hill with a relatively gentle slope – try and find something that takes several minutes to run all the way down but only has a 2-3% grade.
Start from the top and run at 90% effort all the way down to the base of the hill.
Really focus on speed and body position while always keeping your eyes looking forward.
For recovery, walk or lightly jog back up to the top of the hill.
What About Running on an Incline Treadmill?
There are some days where the weather simply won’t cooperate – in the summer it might be too hot, rainy, or windy while in the winter conditions might be too slippery or cold.
In either situation, working out on an incline treadmill is a great way to make sure you don’t have to take an unscheduled day off.
The other great thing about working out on an incline treadmill is that you have the ability to set it to a wide variety of hill grades – usually anywhere from 1-15%.
This means you can play around with the steepness and experiment with a wide variety of difficulty levels all during the same work out.
An incline treadmill offers many of the same benefits as hill running outdoors does – all from the convenience of your own home or local gym.
Check out this in-depth breakdown of everything you need to know about incline treadmills – it even includes a buying guide and some sample reviews!
I hope this article really made you excited to get out there and start training on an incline – hill running is a fantastic way to combine strength and cardio.
It may be mentally and physically demanding but the rewards are definitely worth the effort required.
There isn’t really other running-specific substitute for hill work, so it’s very important to start experimenting with some of the workouts I outlined as soon as possible.
Just remember to start slow and build up to a challenging routine very gradually.
Injury prevention is always important and pushing yourself too hard too fast is never a good idea.
As always, play around with the sample workouts and have FUN!
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