Hills for Fast Fitness

I have always had an affinity for running hills but I wasn’t always good at it.  I first learned about my hill climbing inferiority during my inaugural fall living in Boulder, Colorado; my new friend and training buddy, Jim Carouthers, invited me on a Green Mountain run in Chautauqua Park and then continued on to leave  me behind about 5 minutes into our 45-50 minute ascent.  I was dumbfounded watching Jim scurry up the hill with these tiny little steps while I was getting dropped while using my powerful strides and bounds.  It felt like there was no way I could go any faster, yet Jim was pulling away from me.  It didn’t take me long to accept that I needed to shorten my stride, quicken my step and emulate the form of my friend Jim.

Several years later I felt like I finally came full circle and was able to use the hill climb to my advantage.  I dismounted the bike of a Xterra race in Arizona in the lead along side an athlete whom most likely would have smoked me on a flat run.  Rendered to being a slower runner on the flats due my ultra chronic heel injury, I had trained to excel on the more impact forgiving up-hills.  With a 12 minute hill climb to start the run, I managed to create a 90 second cushion that this athlete slowly carved 60 seconds out of over the remaining downhill and rolling 4 miles allowing me to hold onto the lead.

One of my favorite things about climbing hills is the no-brainer mentality it takes to get a great training session in.  Whether your hill is 20 seconds or 40 minutes long the physiological, technical, and mental demands are the same: you need to use your body in good form to get to the top in the most efficient way possible.  With the summit as a goal and the hill as the workload, all you have to do is move your body and you are challenging your fitness.

Ascending a hill with speed and efficiency requires technique, aerobic and anaerobic power as well as enduring strength: Hill Running Technique:

  • Use quick feet to lessen the load on each push-off.
  • Side step so you can chop away at the hill rather than using an energy sucking bound; this will also help you recruit your powerful glutes and save the quads.
  • Lean forward at the ankles so you can literally fall up the hill and use gravity to your advantage.
  • Drive with your knees up at the angle of the hill in order to create momentum and shorten your swing leg so it comes through quicker.
  • Speed up those arms to set a high cadence for the legs and tighten up your fascia throughout your body to create a spring loaded push-up.
  • Keep your hips high and forward to promote that lean from the ankles.  I bet you will notice that you bend at the hips when you get tired going up hills – get strong so you don’t bend!
Aerobic Power climbing hills
  • Any hill under 6 minutes can give us a great VO2max stress.
  • Repeating the hill gives you a great but limited recovery so you can work on your Lactate Threshold at the same time.
  • Longer climbs give you great muscular endurance and help you learn to hold good form later in hard runs.
  • The end result is a body that has the strength to climb a hill faster.  However when you hold back a little you are able to stay more aerobic and conserve on hills so you can cover the entire run faster; which is something you couldn’t do very well if you didn’t train hills.
Strength and Conditioning
  • Hills work on the obvious pushing muscles of the quadriceps and calve complex.
  • Hill training puts extra demands on our hip-flexor (psoas) muscle which helps the leg swim through in our running.
  • You will also activate your glutes if you keep your hips high and side-step more.   Our glutes what make our bi-ped running so economic by allowing us to use gravity as an aide.
  • Hamstrings are important in our flat runs are activated during the foot strike in order to help pull us up the hill and get us in the position to use our glutes, quads and calve complexes.
  • We also engaged our hamstrings during the swing phase so we can keep our feet high and out of the way of the hill.
  • As many of us get further into a hill workout, we will start to lean at the waist.  A strong low back will help us avoid this and keep an efficient lean from the ankles and leave our hips open to do their job.
All this strength, conditioning and technique results will help dramatically with all aspects of your running.  Let’s hit the hills running!

Written by

Head Coach of TriEndurance. CSCS Strength and Conditioning Coach, Former Pro-Triathlete and current Endurance Enthusiast competing in short and long distance (on or off-road) cycling events.

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