The ups and downs of hill training
Brian Mackenzie reviews the benefits of hill training and provides some examples of hill-based training sessions.
This ergogenic aid has a strengthening effect as well as boosting your athlete's power and is ideal for those athletes who depend on high running speeds, e.g. football, rugby, basketball, cricket players and even runners. So, what is it? Answer: Hills.
How to approach uphill running
The technique to aim for is a "bouncy" style where the athlete has a good knee lift and maximum range of movement in the ankle. They should aim to drive hard, pushing upwards with their toes, flexing their ankle as much as possible, landing on the front part of the foot and then letting the heel come down below the level of the toes as the weight is taken. This stretches the calf muscles upwards and downwards as much as possible and applies resistance which over time will improve their power and elasticity. The athlete should look straight ahead as they run (not at their feet) and ensure their neck, shoulders and arms are free of tension. Many experts believe that the "bouncy" action is more important than the speed at which the athlete runs up the hills. For the athlete, when competing in their sport/event, it can mean higher running speeds and shorter foot strike times.
Benefits of hill training
Hill training offers the following benefits:
Types of hill training
Not all hills are the same (e.g. inclination and length), and the benefits of short, medium and long hills are quite different and can be used at other times of the year.
A short hill takes no more than 30 seconds to run up and inclines a 5 to 15 degrees gradient. The athlete's energy source on short hills is entirely anaerobic. The athlete should focus on a running technique that has vigorous arm drive and high knee lift, with the hips, kept high, so that they are 'running tall', not leaning forwards.
The session is anaerobic, so the recovery time can be long, a walk back down the hill, or a slow jog of 60 to 90 seconds. The total volume will depend on the fitness of the athlete and the reason for doing it. A sprinter looking for strength might do ten repetitions of 15-second duration up a steep slope with a long recovery. In contrast, a distance runner who is trying to improve sprinting speed might do 30 repetitions of 15 seconds duration.
Short hills of 5 to 10-second duration will help improve the Adenosine Triphosphate and Phosphate Creatine (ATP + PC) energy system and hills of 15 to 30-second duration will help develop the ATP + PC + muscle glycogen energy system. Example of short hill sessions:
A medium hill takes between 30 to 90 seconds to run up. This length of a hill is a good distance for the middle-distance runner because it combines the benefits of the short hills with the stresses on local muscular endurance and tolerance of lactic acid. Use a hill as steep as one in six to one in ten, so that you can run at something near race pace. The energy source is both aerobic and anaerobic and the athlete will experience the build-up in blood lactate as they go further up the hill.
Although the session will usually be quite fast and competitive, the style must be emphasised. Shooting up the hill with a short stride and forward lean may be the best way to get up in a race, but in training, we are trying to develop particular qualities. It is better, therefore, to go for a longer stride and higher knee lift: running tall with the hips pushed forwards, keeping the back upright. Again, the volume of the session depends on the individual.
With a group of youngsters, you can do six to eight runs of 45 seconds, followed by some 10-second sprints on a steeper hill. With top-class senior runners, you can do 12 to 15 runs of about 70 seconds, so that it is the equivalent of an interval training session on the track. A good practice is to increase the number by one or two each time the session comes around while trying to run them at about the same pace. The recovery is a slow jog back to the bottom, and when the times start falling much below those of the first few runs, it is time to stop.
A long hill takes from 90 seconds to three minutes plus. Here most of the energy comes from aerobic sources, but if parts of the hill are steep and they are running them hard, there will still be an accumulation of blood lactate. There will be local muscular fatigue in the leg muscles, and in the abdominal muscles too, but the main limiting factor will be the athlete's cardiovascular system.
These long hills can be used in two ways:
As these hill sessions are aerobic, the athlete will not use as much power per stride as the shorter hills, and so perhaps would not be used by middle-distance runners, except for one or two time-trial runs. They are particularly useful for the cross country or road runner who is running distances of 10,000m and upwards. A session of, say eight three minutes, with a run back of four or five minutes, will make an excellent hard work out.
Many runners develop muscle soreness after strenuous workouts or races. Clarkson et al. (1992) has shown that muscle pain and loss of strength can be minimised if runners undertake regular sessions of eccentric training. For runners, this would involve downhill running as it will put the muscles in the front of the leg under intense eccentric duress. A single downhill session (6 to 10 downhill runs over 300 metres) on a 300 to a 400-metre hill with an inclination of 10-15 degrees should protect against muscle pain and loss of strength for at least six weeks.
To reduce the possibility of injury, the athlete requires a good solid base of general strength and general endurance before undertaking hill work. With all hill sessions, it is important to warm-up before and to cool down after the hill session.
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About the Author
Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.