Hill training is an important part of any runner’s repertoire. Hill work is complementary to strength and speed training.
Why do hill training?
Why is it important to have strong legs? Consider this: the speed you run depends on two things – the length of your stride, and the number of strides you take per minute (turnover). This is blindingly obvious if you think about it: but it has important implications. So if you increase your stride length, you will run faster. To do this you need to improve your flexibility, but also your leg strength so that you push off with greater power for each step.
For longer distance running, leg strength is also a key factor in developing your stamina. Hill workouts strengthen your hamstrings, calves and buttocks, but especially the thigh muscles (quadriceps), which don’t get much of a workout from running on the flat. Marathon runners, in particular, need strong quads to sustain their effort over the full distance.
It is also important to develop leg strength as a way to avoid injury. Before you start intense speed training, you should have a base of leg strength which gives you the explosive power you need for speed.
Hill running not only develops stronger legs, it is also character-building. And if you make hill sessions a regular part of your training, you will find that the hills in your race slip by (well, almost).
So hill training is valuable for runners of any distance, and especially for half marathons and marathons. You should plan to increase your hill sessions at the beginning of the training cycle, before you start the serious speed work.
“Having had a tough day at work, I came to training this evening feeling exhausted and run down. By the end of my workout, I felt as if I could take on the world.”
David Ferrier, runner and theatre manager
How to do a hill session
A typical session involves finding a hill that is anywhere between 200m and 1km long, with a gradient of between 5% and 15%. Warm up for ten minutes (you may be able to do this by jogging from home to the hill). Then run up the hill hard, keeping your head up and shoulders back. Emphasise your style: push off your feet, lift your knees, and pump your arms hard. As the gradient of the hill changes, try to hold your effort (not your speed) constant. At the top of the hill, keep running; and jog back down to the bottom and repeat.
If you are new to hill sessions, begin with about a mile of hill running (plus a mile of jogging down again); and gradually build up to three or four miles. The number of repeats will depend on the length of the hill.
An alternative way to build hills into your schedule is to plan one of your longer routes to include a hilly section (if necessary, repeating a loop of the route with a good hill in it). Again, your aim should be to maintain your effort levels as the gradient increases. Try to ensure that you run a total of at least two to three miles uphill with a gradient of at least 7%.
If you are really stuck for hills where you live, you can sometimes improvise, using a treadmill in your gym (which can be set to a gradient); or the steps in a local stadium.