You either love them or you hate them.
For those of us that love nothing more than a steep mountain trail, the idea of running hills is enough to get the blood pumping. If you are more of a “flat and fast” kind of runner, I’m here to tell you that the hill may just be the best friend you have never met.
At first glance, struggling up a hill at a snail’s pace seems to have little to do with running a fast 10k race, but there are lots of hidden gems within the hill run that reap benefits for a number of areas of your running.
Let’s look firstly at energy consumption and expenditure: An increase in gradient of only 1% will cause an increase in energy expenditure of up to 12%. Forcing your body to work harder over a shorter distance and time means you will be training in a time efficient manner and producing greater gains for your effort.
Your VO2 Max will improve (amount of oxygen your body can utilize) and more importantly, so will your efficiency in the use of that oxygen for the production of energy.
Activation of muscle fibres: While we use all the muscles of our legs to run, we don’t necessarily utilize all the muscle fibres within those muscles. It is bit like driving a V8 sports car but only using 4 cylinders. When running up-hill the glutes activate almost 10% more their fibres, the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) uses almost 20% more fibres and the quads use around 25% more fibres. These three muscles are critical in helping you produce faster running times and also a more powerful stride.
Running form: When done correctly, up-hill running puts your body in the ideal position for developing and strong running form. The forward lean at the ankles, higher knee lift and springing motion required to push up the hill all combine to create a very efficient an d powerful motion. If we take that same body position and apply it to a flat run, you will see that all the motion produced is funneled into the forward propulsion of the body and very little is lost in wasted movement.
Improved recovery: Downhill running puts your quads and glutes in particular through an action called eccentric muscle contraction which basically means the muscles are being loaded but also being lengthened at the same time. The type of muscle contraction will produce much more trauma within the muscle fibres than concentric (muscle shortening). For anyone that has run hard and fast down a hill for the first time in while, the soreness the next day or the day after is generally much worse than it is after an uphill session. The good news is that even one hard downhill session can condition your legs to be able to handle the additional load for up to 6 weeks. Regularly including downhill running on a weekly basis gives you a fantastic advantage for racing where you are required to produce hard efforts and recover quickly to back them up again within the same session or with a few days of the event.
Apart from the physiological advantages of hill training, there is also the psychological advantage of knowing that you can take on a climb or a descent and have the confidence that you will be able to handle it. Also, there is nothing more demoralizing for your competitors than trudging up a tortuous hill, sweating from the eyeballs, only to have you trot past them with a smile on your face and no signs of distress.
To help everyone not only get greater benefits from their hill training, but also to keep the training varied and interesting, Brewsters Running is currently in production of a new hill/mountain training program that will include a whole range of hill running sessions. The program, aptly named ‘The Goat’ will help you improve your strength and speed on the hills, your technique for both the climbing and descending and also help to transition those benefits from the hill to the flat and into your racing.
Stay tuned for this program’s release in December 2013.
Until then, if you aren’t already including at least one solid hill running session into your week, add it in and see what it does for your times, your recovery and your confidence.