Incorporate Hills to Improve Fitness

As runners we tend to think that if we’re pushing ourselves farther and faster that we are improving.  While this can be true there are other aspects to a well-rounded healthy runner than just pace times and increasing distances though.  The best runners keep their bodies strong and they do so by incorporating strength and variability to their weekly routines.

“I don’t need to get stronger I just need to run more hills!  Have you seen the quads on Kilian Jornet?”

A common thing I hear from many veteran runners is that hill work keeps their body more resilient. This  is a key ingredient to their success. This becomes especially true for athletes interested in mountain races or destination races.  It’s best to try to mimic the same types of terrain as your race course. If you have a mountain race, run more hills! Practice running the downhills too, because most races have both.  But keep some of these things in mind when incorporating more hill work into your routine.

Here are a few reminders when it comes to hills and cross training

1) Running uphill saves very little time:

It’s true that fitter people tend to be able to push hard up hills and run them without slowing or walking.  But what’s also true is that SMARTER runners often win the race, not necessarily fitter ones. This is especially true in mountain races.  Think about it. Let’s say you’re running a marathon with a one mile, 10% grade hill. (Yes this is hyperbole but stick with me). If you slow your pace from an 8 minute mile to a 10 minute mile you’ve added 2 minutes to your total time.  What if you push thru that hill and hit the wall at Mile 22? Now how much time have you added slowing to 10 minute pace for the rest of the race? Once your energy stores are depleted, it is much harder to make up time.

2) Running downhill can put a lot of stress on the body:

Be cautious on bombing the downhills. Running downhills without proper form can lead to added injuries. Keep your steps short, and start with hills that are in your comfort zone.  Try to keep your body perpendicular to the ground rather than leaning back so that you don’t over-stride. Over-striding downhill leads to braking, which places even greater force on your joints and muscles.  Realize you may need to increase your cadence to make up for gravity. Don’t be afraid to use your outstretched arms to stay balanced and in control.

3) Running hills works best when your effort is achievable.

Many runners think they need to find the biggest, steepest and longest hills to train on.  While we may feel a little like Sisyphus trudging up a nasty incline in a race, practicing those conditions won’t always get you different results.  The best hill training is much like other running workouts. You want to stress the heart and muscles enough to create a stimulus without overloading your body.  For most runners rolling hills that allow your heart-rate to rise and recover several times during a workout is a healthier way to build strength and endurance than mashing Austin’s Ladera Norte hill over and over.

4) Balance running and cross training.  

Strength doesn’t just come from running more, or faster, or steeper.  It also comes from a well-rounded physical fitness that cross training can provide.  If you are only ever using the same muscles you do when you run, what’s happening to the others that are needed when your form falters, you fatigue, or need a little extra stability on a technical trail?  If you have ever dealt with any injuries as a runner you know that they mostly come from weak or overused muscles. Incorporating strength training or a cross-training sport in your weekly routine ensures that those muscles are strong and up to the task when an unforeseen variable is thrown at you on race day.

There are many ways to become a stronger and faster runner. Incorporating hills into your training can increase your muscle strength and fitness level together. Your best initial step is to create a routine that is consistent and build more specificity into your training as you become more proficient.  Remember that we train to gain strength though and sometimes the “less is more” mantra is a good one to adopt when placing additional stress on the body. If you’re feeling like you need to add more or different activities to your routine, ask your coach what might be best for you and your goals.




Joe Cooper