Spring is here and a great time to take to the hills!

beautiful scene

March is a great month to enjoy some hill running. As the days get longer and temperatures warmer, it is a great time to take to the hills!

Hills can make you stronger, faster and more efficient! Just think about it: every time you run up a hill you are running against a resistance and so building strength - endurance, if you push hard up the hill you will move more like a sprinter and so build speed-endurance and you will be practicing picking up your knees and driving your arms so that you practise a better running technique. These are three good reasons to incorporate hills into your training runs.

Have a look at your regular training routes and the hills that are in them. Do you have some short, sharp hills that you can attack and practice surging up with high knees and driving arms? Do you have some long, gradual gradients where you can practise pacing yourself to the top with a steady rhythm? Whatever the type of hill, the gradient or length you should consider the optimal technique for running up and down. Running uphill requires that you shorten your stride and increase your cadence (just as you would with the gears in your car or on a bike).

Once you have mastered the technique you will look forward to arriving at the bottom of the hills on your training route rather than dreading them. With optimal technique, you will learn to love the hills!

The next thing to do is to 'milk them'! Make the most of them by running hard to the top. Keep the effort going over the top and into the descent before easing off the gas. Many runners practise running up hills but make the mistake of either stopping or slowing right down at the top. This then becomes habit and they find that they do it even when they are trying to race round a course or run steady for the whole distance. By practising running hard off the top you will find that you also do this in events and pass others who have come to a grinding halt at the top of the hill.

Of course the other way you will learn to love the hills is to do specific hill sessions that also prepare you to tackle them on your long runs or in races. If you haven't done hill work before you should start tentatively. Make sure that you feel you are running hard but controlled and always finish a hill session with the feeling that you could do one more repetition. Like any other training you should progress the sessions gradually over time and plan recovery from these sessions into your training programme. Generally speaking you can recover from uphill sessions more quickly than other sessions that are more impactful. Running uphill is generally less impactful than downhill or flat running as you don't have as far to fall to earth, as it were!

Before you plan your specific hill sessions you should consider what you want to achieve. If speed is the aim of the game you should keep your uphill efforts to less than 60 seconds and probably more like 30 seconds. Any further than this and you will compromise your running style and the speed at which you can run each effort. You should run over the top of the hill and then run slowly back down whilst you recover and prepare yourself for the next effort. You could do anything from 8 - 16 repetitions during this session, depending on your level of fitness.

If you want to improve your strength-endurance you may want to choose a longer hill where you can run continuously up and down without reducing the effort. This means that the pace to the top will be slower than it is in your speed session but you will turn round at the top and keep the effort going with a relaxed but quick turnaround to the bottom before going again. It may be good to do this session on time rather than the number of repetitions. You could run up and down your hill for 20 minutes or for as long as 40 minutes depending on your level of fitness.

You may also want to work downhill to improve your leg speed. To do this you should find a very slight slope on a smooth surface where you can run fast over a distance of 80 - 100 metres before walking slowly back to repeat again from 5 to 10 times. Don’t run flat out, but start at mile pace and increase this pace as you get more fluid with your rhythm and flow.

Now, how about preparing your legs for the impact of downhill running? If you are preparing for a race that includes any brutal downhill sections, such as the famous Boston Marathon (USA), it is a good idea to include downhill sessions into your programme. You could carry these sessions out on a triangular route where you can run hard to the top of the hill, down the other side and use a flat section to the start of the climb as a recovery where you run slowly or walk before repeating the effort. Again, this should perhaps be run on time as the length of the hill could vary. So the session could be anything from 20 minutes to 40 minutes long. Another variation of this could be a "big dipper". Rather than using a hill, could you find a depression? You could run at race pace, down into the depression and keep the effort going up the other side before stopping at the top for some recovery before turning round and running back the way you came. Again, you could perform these "back to backs" over a set time. Remember that running hard downhill is very impactful and you are likely to suffer with Delayed Onset Muscle Fatigue (DOMS) one or two days after the session so you will need more recovery from these sessions but the objective of this is to get your body used to it, so as time goes by you should find it easier to recover from them. Start with just 2 reps initially  and increase gradually.

Remember to plan recovery in so that your hill training builds your fitness rather than breaking you down!

Sample Hill sessions

2x4x30”          UP medium hill (jog slowly back and jog slowly for 5 minutes (') between the set) 

5x90”              UP gentle hill  (jog back)

5x10”              UP fast  steep hill (walk back)

5x20”              DOWN gentle hill  

4x 60”             30” downhill then 30” uphill continuous effort  (1' jog)

4 x 2'               on a treadmill at 7-15% uphill depending on your fitness (1' recovery)