How to Run Hills (and Why We Need Them)
For many, running hills is a necessary evil! For others, those runs are one of the more enjoyable runs of the week. Racing on hills can very much be… the good, the bad and the UGLY!!!
We run hills for many reasons. They provide strength, cardio, and core strength training. Hills can be defined in many ways—and much of the definition depends on where you live and how often you run them. In general, the way people define hills vary as much as the way they define long runs and high mileage.
It is important to realize that the amount of power needed to run hills is considerably more than the amount required running on flats. Consequently, you will tend to spike your heart rate if you try to maintain the same speed that you do on flats (at least at first). The best way to think about how to run hills is to think about how you would climb stairs. Most people can picture a time when they have climbed multiple flights of stairs. I personally think of the Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. If you’ve ever been there, you are familiar with at least one staircase that has 150 steps. As you start to ascend the stairs, you notice they are set up in a manner where you can either choose to touch each step or you can skip every other step. What you initially find is the “every step” method increases your cadence and is quite easy. But many become antsy and choose to skip a step. If you do that, your cadence decreases but the required power and the stride length goes up.
While both techniques require a lot of oxygen and you can quickly get out of breath either way, each method creates loads on your legs differently. If you hit every step and move to a higher cadence, your heart rate and respiration increases but your legs stay surprisingly fresh for most people of average fitness. However, if you choose the “every other step” method, you will find that your heart rate and breathing increase, but your legs also quickly get heavy. While both methods get you to the top, they do affect you differently: once at the top, the latter method causes you to lose the bounce in your step (and most likely stop for a second) whereas the former method allows you to have the “legs” to keep moving even while the breath recovers. This is very similar to what happens when you run hills. If you choose to “stride out” and run up the hill with the speed and gait used on the flats, you could “ blow up” or become so exhausted, you are reduced to a slow jog or even a walk once at the top of the hill. Add many reoccurring hills, and you will find it will quickly become a long day. However, if you shorten your gait and focus on shorter strides with a quick turnover, you will most likely have the legs to keep going at a good pace even at the top of the hill.
Many people learn that even walking the hill at a good clip allows them to return to a faster pace on the flats and down hills and end up with a net speed somewhere between much faster to somewhat faster than if they tried to run the hills at an easy short stride pace. Both, the walking and short stride approach are great for longer races (ultras and some marathons) and especially for those newer to running. In reality, choosing to walk the hills in training and then running the flats and down hills may initially be the best option for the complete newbie or a deconditioned runner since the extra load on the hills would just be too much and could lead to injury. So, by walking the hills you still get some cardiovascular challenge and some leg fatigue, but you avoid the huge loads that cause injury.
Now, once the novice or deconditioned athlete becomes conditioned, the approach to training should slowly shift to running the hills with the expectation that the work load will increase. Keep the gait short, the body upright, and the cadence high. This will allow you to save the legs a bit but also generate the additional power and cardio needed to negotiate the hill. Once at the top, if you are a beginner to intermediate runner, you can then walk the first part of the down hill to allow your heart rate to drop back to more manageable levels and then return to running until the next hill. As you get more fit, you should be able to continue your running at the top and through to the down hill while your body recovers from the increased power load of the hill climb. Also, as your fitness increases, you will slowly be able to run larger (steeper) and longer hills and, eventually, run them in races for a faster time.
As people hit middle levels of fitness, I find they stop their progress on hills and sometimes end up injured. Often this is because they run the hills too hard or return to too fast of a running speed in training too early. Your body needs to be trained at a level that is challenging but shy of a “race” type effort. If you push these too hard, you will most likely not be able to add multiple hills. The ability to add more hills is how your body becomes conditioned to endure even fewer hills faster in races.
Another reason I see for progress leveling off is that the rest between hills is too long or the hills are just not challenging enough. In general, the best way to combat this is to do actual hill repeats. I suggest doing hill repeats on opposite weeks from track speed sessions or even in the early spring/summer before you hit the track. The hills will help strengthen tendons that are required to be strong for speed work, longer runs, and increases in total mileage.
When running hill repeats, generally, it is best to warm up by running 5-10 minutes easy on flats (.5-1.5 miles) and then stopping and stretching before hitting the hills. Choose to start with 4-8 45-90 second hills and don’t run the hills harder than you would be running them in the middle of a normal run. You just run them. The increased load is just the hill! We don’t want the increased load to come from both the hill and the intensity in which you run the hill. Once at the top, if you ran hard and are worried about turning around and immediately running back down, you can turn around and walk back down the first 3rd of the way and then jog lightly the remainder. One of my favorite techniques is to have people walk backwards down the first 3rd of the hill focusing on driving their heel down so they stretch the Achilles and calves (and even hamstrings to some degree) which are a big part of the force generators while running hills.
Another key detail is that you should hit your lap button at the bottom of the hill and again at the top of the hill. Notice how long it takes you to climb the hill and then keep each hill run at the same pace allowing for a recovery in between. As an example: let say you can run the hill in 75 seconds, then you should, at first, not repeat the hill or run the next one until 2min and 30 seconds have passed. The goal is to run all 4-8 hills in the same time with a good amount of recovery. Once you can do this, and you are not sore the next day or two, you can then either add more hills or work your recovery ratio to 1:1.5 (75 seconds up and 1 min 45 sec recovery). Having a recovery faster than 1:1.5, means you are basically racing too quickly back down hill and potentially not recovering enough before you start the next one, in which case, you could either stop your progress or even get injured.
Over time, by doing these hill repeats, you will find you are able to run hills both in training runs and in races much stronger and much smarter AND you’ll have a much better sense of how to pace them and run them (both up hill and down hill).