Hill running has a strengthening effect as well as boosting your athlete's power and is ideal for those athletes who depend on high running speeds - football, rugby, basketball, cricket players and even runners. To reduce the possibility of injury hill training should be conducted once the athlete has a good solid base of strength and endurance. In this article, Tulloh (1992) identifies the benefits of the various forms of hill training.
What it does for you
In hill running, the athlete uses their body weight as a resistance to push against, so the driving muscles from which their leg power is derived have to work harder. 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. TThis stretches the calf muscles upwards and downwards as much as possible and applies resistance, which will improve their power and elasticity over time. 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.
Hill work results in the calf muscles learning to contract more quickly and generating work at a higher rate; they become more powerful. The calf muscle achieves this by recruiting more muscle fibres, around two or three times as many as running on the flat. The "bouncy" action also improves the quads' power in the front of the thigh as they provide the high knee lift required. When competing in their sport/event, it can mean higher running speeds and shorter foot strike times.
Hill training offers the following benefits:
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 5 and 15 degrees gradient. The athlete's energy source on short hills is entirely anaerobic. The athlete should focus on a running technique with 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 that 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 the athlete fitness 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 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 the run-up. This length of a hill is a good distance for the middle-distance runner because it combines the short hills' benefits with the stresses on local muscular endurance and tolerance of lactic acid. Use a hill as steep of one in six to one in ten, so that you can run at something near race pace. The energy source is 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. Scuttling up the hill with a short stride and forward lean may be the best way to get up in a race, but we are trying to develop particular qualities in training. Therefore, it is better 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 possibly in the abdominal muscles, but the main limiting factor will be the athlete's cardiovascular system.
These 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 good for the cross country or road runner 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 a good hard work out.
Mixed hill running
The attraction of mixed hill training is that it can be fitted in with the terrain the athlete is running on and can be interesting and full of variety. If they do a fartlek session around a hilly course, they will be able to fit in several different runs. Two advantages can come from this type of hill training:
Mixed hill running can also be used to improve running economy and boost an athlete's VO2 max. To do this identify a six or seven-mile undulating hilly course, commence the session jogging at a modest pace and gradually pick up the intensity as they move through the hills. The key is not just to run up and down a few hills in their workout but to find a place where they can run up and down hills nearly constantly. If they cannot find a six or seven-mile course with constant undulations, use a shorter course and run back and forth on it. The key is not to let the flat ground running more than 25% of the workout.
During most of the run, the athlete's heart rate should be close to 85% of maximum (85% of maximum heart rate matches up with 76% VO2 max). Do not let them blast up hills in the early part of the workout, this can stop them working though subsequent miles. The idea is to run constantly at a hard but not super-fast speed. They should not feel like they are racing, but as though they are running just slightly slower than the lactate threshold, even if the actual pace is even slower than that. Alternatively, they can use heart rate, which should be at around 85% of maximum during at least the last two-thirds of their run. A run of six to seven miles in this manner is enough for a great workout, but you can expand the session as much as you want with some additional hilly, but more comfortable miles. If you plan in a mixed hill session once a week over 10 to 12-mile course, you will be amazed at how their running takes off.
There are many advantages of combining hills and hard going, e.g. sand. When the sand is soft, the athlete has to work a lot harder and increase their leg speed to keep themselves going. At the same time, there is a reduced risk of damaging their legs through impact injuries. In general, it has the same effect as hill running, but the distances can be reduced because of the difficulty. Other methods of building leg strength are running in boots, running through snow or running with a pack on your back. As the coach remember, the tougher the session, the more carefully it must be integrated into the overall training plan.
Planning in the hill training
Once an athlete is fit enough to train, hill running can form a regular part of the pre-competition build-up. To avoid monotony, a 12-week 'strength' program, based on a 14-day cycle, will provide the right build-up to a period of racing. Within the 14-day cycle, you would include one session of long hills, two medium hills, plus a hilly fartlek session. The harder and longer the hill session, the easier the training must be the next day until the athlete's body has learnt to cope. As the competition approaches, you should drop the hills to once a week, making the other days more race-specific sessions.
The middle-distance runner might drop the long hills, but keep the medium ones going until he/she starts the track training - even then, hills can be done once every two weeks to maintain strength. The runner trying to increase finishing speed might well want to keep the short hills going right through the early part of the track season. However, there must come a time when the main work becomes race-specific and will be done on flat ground.
There is one situation where a hilly course can be used in the track or road racing season, and that is in the time trials or tempo runs in the last couple of weeks before a major event. You may want to do something to see how fit your athlete is and to test out their ability to push themselves. For a middle-distance runner, a grassy hill or a sand-dune course of, say, half-a-mile, is just the thing for a pre-race test. Running up a hill on a soft surface is much less damaging than doing, say, 1000m on a synthetic track, yet it gives all the pain and all the pleasure of a really hard work-out and that, after all, is what we are trying to achieve.
Many runners develop muscle soreness after strenuous workouts or races. Clarkson et al. (1992)  has shown that the muscle pain and loss of strength can be minimised if runners undertake regular sessions of eccentric training. For runners, this would involve downhill running, since downhills 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 to 15 degrees should protect against muscle pain and loss of strength for at least six weeks.
More examples of Hill sessions
With all hill sessions, it is important to warm-up before and to cool down after the hill session with all hill sessions - easy jog for 5 to 10 minutes, followed by stretching exercises. Two sessions a week for six to eight weeks will improve your overall fitness and running speed.
Session 3 (treadmill)
Session 4 (treadmill)
Over-speed training can be achieved by running down a hill. The difficulty is finding a suitable hill with a safe surface.
The information on this page is adapted from Tulloh (1992) with Electric Word plc's kind permission.
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