A Steeper Look at Hill Running
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were shortcuts to becoming a better runner? How about having more toned muscles? Stronger running form? Fortunately, there’s a common thread to all of these. The caveat is that it entails running up an incline. But what makes hills such a significant bang for the buck? First, hills develop tremendous aerobic strength. There is a reason you are breathing hard after jogging up a hill or walking up a flight of stairs. The heart is the most important muscle to the runner (and human in general), and hills are certainly a way to build aerobic stamina without having to make every day super long and tedious. Footnote: for every uphill there is a downhill.
A second benefit of running hills is that we activate groups of muscles that may otherwise be ignored while running on flat grounds, primarily the glutes and hamstrings. While these major muscle groups are extremely powerful, we often ignore them if we are running solely on flat surfaces. However, teaching the legs how to utilize these muscles more regularly can lead to greater efficiency in running over any surface and help keep us from regularly overusing the same one or two muscle groups. Adding some regular training that helps us naturally utilize and focus on these key muscle groups is crucial to efficient running mechanics, which brings us to point number 3. Uphill running forces us into different, more dynamic movement patterns. Since we are running up an incline, we are forced into lifting our knees higher, and the best way to instinctively drive our knees upwards is to put more force into the ground via our glutes and hamstrings (which we just read about). This also assists us with giving us more “oomph” to push off the ground with from our toes.
Let’s briefly visit what good hill running form looks like. If you are familiar with riding a bike, you already know that you change gears when you are riding uphill vs downhill vs flats. Running is no different. When we are going up a hill, we shift into a different gear with quicker, more powerful and driving strides to counteract gravity as we climb. What this looks like in practical application is a slightly wider arm swing to help initiative our legs to push more powerfully and lift the knees slightly higher than usual. Strides can certainly get a little shorter and less lopey as we are climbing, very much like riding that bike again. When climbing, it is important to have a little bit of a lean into the hill to help with forward momentum, though this should not fall into the “leaning over, hands on knees” look.
Lastly, hill running and workouts do not need to be some carefully constructed Beethoven masterpiece. Sometimes it is very much worthwhile to find a loop with rolling hills so we have some irregular bouts of climbing. Not every workout has to be defined down to the millisecond to be beneficial, and this is a great way to put that into practice and make yourself think more about form and effort than the watch. Another favorite is uphill repeats, with a jog or walk back to the starting point as the recovery. Taking your time on the recovery in this type of workout makes the short bouts uphill (10 to 60 seconds in duration typically) both quicker and gives you an extra chance to be rested enough to make sure the form is strong and powerful.
Hills are fun, and they definitely help make strong runners stronger. They are certainly great for an alternative workout than hitting the track or usual loop around town, and breaks up the monotony of running along the same roads for mile after mile. But like any other type of run or workout, always focus on keeping those calves and the rest of the lower legs especially healthy and loose after.