The ABC Of Hills Training

hill training workouts

Hills training is one of the best kept secrets of building strength, speed and improving running efficiency.

Whilst many will argue hills are a pain in the backside, their benefit is undeniable. If you’d like to enjoy your running, hills training has got to be an integral part of your training.

Long runs, speedwork and core training are all incredible ways to make you a more efficient runner. But hills training is almost like the marinade used when you braai meat. Whilst you can do without adding marinade to your meat, adding it gives your meat that distinguishing flavour.

In fact that’s why we go to places like Nandos right? To get the Lemon and Herb; Mild or Peri Peri that gives grilled chicken that added flavour.

That’s what hills training does for your running. Much like the unmarinated meat and flavourless chicken, you can do without the added flavour of hills training. But adding hills to your training programme provides an incredible dynamic to your running.

Given the above, why, do most athletes neglect hills training?

I think it’s a combination of 4 factors:

  1. Some are ignorant to the whole notion of “hills training”
  2. Most don’t know how to train for hills properly
  3. Hills training, much like training the core, is tough and not fun at all
  4. Some are under the illusion that long runs that include hills provide adequate hills training

You might fall into any one of the above categories.

By the end of this post, I hope I would have ignited you to wake up at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning and go do some hills training.

To do this, I am going to:

  1. Define Hills Training
  2. List the different types of Hills Training techniques and Benefits

Please note that this is not a post on how to train for hills. To get training programme that includes hills training, you can head on over to the Free Training Programmes.

Definition

The definition of hills training can get a bit tricky because it is a form of training that short, medium and long distance athletes use.

On the one hand a 100m athlete, like Usian Bolt, can derive much benefit from training hills. Equally so, an ultra-marathon athlete benefits incredibly from hills training.

As such, the definition is better understood if we look at the two main outputs of hills training – namely strength and speed.

Research, carried out by Dr Bengt Saltin, discovered that runners who trained on hills have much higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes – the chemicals which allow your muscles to function at high intensity for long periods without fatigue – in their quadriceps muscles than those who did all their running on flat terrain. Heightened aerobic power in your quads gives you improved knee lift while running and also accelerates each leg forward more quickly as you run, which improves your speed.

In essence, the definition of hills training is a combination of:

  • the ability of your muscles to function at high intensity for long periods without fatigue
  • aerobic power that improves your knee lift whilst running to give you the ability to accelerate each leg more quickly as you run
  • cardiovascular efficiency due to the increased energy required to deal with the gravity.

The keyword above is “combination”.

Hills training combines strength, speed training and cardiovascular efficiency into one.

Types of Hills Training

For effective hills training, it’s essential to understand that hills are different – in length and gradient.

Firstly, I am going to define the types of hills largely in terms of length versus time. We run up hills at different speeds based on our running ability and fitness at any given point in time. In 90 seconds, a natural and fit athlete is able to cover a much longer distance than a slower athlete.

Secondly, to try and define the hills according to their gradient just gets technical. As such, I’ll stick to “steep” in defining the different categories of gradients.

Lastly, I’ll list the benefits of hills training. You might be wondering why you shouldn’t stick to strength training at the gym and speed training when you do speedwork sessions if the benefits of hills training are predominantly strength and speed.

Most runners tend to do the majority of their strength-specific work in the gym through squats, leg extensions or arm and shoulder presses. While these exercises do increase strength and muscular power, they do it in isolation of your running, focusing on individual joints and small sets of muscles.

Likewise, speedwork on its own does not provide the type of resistance that a slope provides.

In contrast, hill sessions force the muscles in your hips, legs, ankles and feet to contract in a co-ordinated fashion while supporting your body weight. In addition, the slope provides resistance that forces the cardiovascular system to work at or near its capacity.

All of the above, simply emphasize the significance of the combined benefits the different types of hills training provide.

Long Hills repeats

Long hills are those in excess of 500m. These can be as long as 2kms. At Comrades Marathon, if it’s the “Up” run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, the very last hill – 75kms into the run – is a climb of 1 800m. Terrifying to say the least.

Long Hill repeats are the traditional foundation of a hills workout session. The intensity is great because your legs are experiencing resistance for a lengthy period.

These are done at a medium pace to relatively hard pace depending on your fitness. For recovery, you take a slow jog down the hill.

Benefits:

  • Improves strength endurance
  • Improves VO2 max due to the intensity and length of the hill
  • Increases muscle strength

VO2 max is a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. Fit athletes have higher a higher VO2 max and can exercise more intensely than those who have lower VO2 max.

Medium Hill Repeats

Medium hills are 250m to 500m in length. These are done at a medium to relatively hard pace. Again, the recovery is a slow jog down the hill.

Benefits:

  • Develops co-ordination between legs, core and arms

Short to Medium Hill Repeats

Short to medium hill are 50m to 250m in length. This is probably the most basic of any hills training session and yet one of the most beneficial.

The pace should be intense but not maximum speed. For recovery, jog back down the hill.

Short, Explosive Hill Sprints

Short, explosive hills are used predominantly by sprinters for power and pace. The length of the hill is 30 – 50m, and steep. With long and medium hills, the gradient is not so much a necessity. However, for short hills, you want a hill that is steep to get maximum benefit.

You need to run these at a fast, if not maximum, speed with good and high knee lift. This type of hills training is not the norm for long distance athletes unless you want to run your marathons at blistering speed.

Benefits:

  • Develops maximum speed
  • Boosts leg-muscle power, giving you quicker, longer strides

Rolling Hills

These are hills that are part of your training runs. The idea is to choose routes that include a few hills – short, medium and long. You also want varying degrees of inclines.

The idea of this type of training is to maintain pace over the hills and recover well through the flats or downhills that follow these hills.

Benefits:

  • Maintain race pace when running hills
  • Maintain running form
  • Good stimulus for race day conditions

Treadmill hills training

You might be itching to mention that you live in a very flat area. Maybe, you have hills – but they are gentle hills. No significant inclines to talk about.

If that’s you, treadmills are the solution. Treadmills can never be compared to the real conditions provided by natural hills. As much as running one hour on the treadmill and running one hour on the road can never be compared, simulating inclines using treadmills can never compare to the real deal.

Having said that, treadmills can provide some incredible benefits, if you have no other options.

Based on your fitness, you can set the speed and incline to suit your needs.

Benefits:

  • You can change the settings easily, be it speed or the inclines
  • You can mix the treadmill session with some cross training

Downhill training

Unsurprisingly, hills training tends to focus a lot on your ability to run uphill.

Very little is said about your ability to run downhill. As weird as it may sound, running downhill requires skill. Without that skill, you tend to run those downhills, especially in races, too fast – often under the illusion of “making up lost time running uphill”. In the process, you end up suffering an injury.

The downhill runs when recovering from your uphill training is a good basis. As such, I encourage you to run and not walk when going downhill during your hills training sessions.

That way you’ll be able to get a combination of short, medium and long downhill runs. The only difference will be the pace at which you run the downhills. Run them at an easy pace and increase pace as and when you get fitter and get your downhill running technique right.

Benefits

  • Develops control and stabilisation
  • Protects your legs against soreness

Conclusion

From the above, it’s quite clear that hills training improves your overall long distance running form. Because the results start to show pretty quickly, within a period of five to eight weeks, you’ll begin to see a vast improvement in your long distance running.

As a word of caution, hills training can get quite intensive. As such, I suggest that you have at least eight weeks of a solid foundation through regular training – road running and perhaps some cross-training. Without a solid foundation you simply increase your chances of getting injured. I also recommend that you do no more than one session of hills training per week.

Another added benefit is that should you get injured, you lose your fitness slower than an athlete who doesn’t do any hill sessions training.

Ideally, your ultimate objective should be that of becoming an effective long distance runner. One, who thoroughly enjoys running and derives all the benefits associated with running. Without hills training, you are up against a massive hill!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. More importantly, I hope it will help in any way big or small to become a better long distance runner.

God Bless!

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