Hill Running

I did a hill workout today. If you want a humbling workout, whether you’re a runner or any other kind of fitness buff, there’s nothing like running hills to humble you. 

For runners, hills are a big part of training and racing. The feel of your heart pounding in your chest and your shortness of breath at the top of the hill attest to what hills provide for your cardiorespiratory system. But they also provide a great workout for your skeletal muscles. Hill training increases leg muscle power, can be used as a transition into more formal speedwork, improves the performance of the heart since heart rate can easily climb up to its maximum when running up a hill, and uses the muscles of the legs, arms, and trunk in ways that are different from flat running.

hill runner

Physiology of Hills

Even though running uphill seems harder as your heart must do more work to send blood and oxygen to a large muscle mass that must work against gravity, downhills actually cause the biggest problems. If you’ve ever run a race with long or steep downhills, you know what running downhill can do to your legs. The reason downhills are so tough is because of all the gravity-induced eccentric muscle contractions, during which your muscle fibers are forced to lengthen, causing them to tear. Eccentric contractions are also unique in that fewer muscle fibers are active compared to other types of muscle contractions, causing the force generated to be distributed over a smaller area of muscle. A greater force over a smaller area equals greater tension, which causes even more damage. The forces of impact and braking are also greater during downhill running compared to uphill and flat running. Therefore, running downhill carries a greater risk of overuse injury compared to uphill or flat running. The muscle damage decreases your muscles’ ability to produce force, which slows your pace on the flat and uphill portions of the race and leads to delayed-onset muscle soreness, which includes an inflammatory response and lasts for a few days following the race as your muscle fibers heal. 

The good news is that damaging muscle fibers with eccentric contractions makes them heal back stronger, protecting them from future damage. While you can expect your muscles to be sore after the first time running downhill, subsequent downhill workouts will cause less soreness since running downhill has a prophylactic effect on muscle damage and soreness.

Downhill running also affects running economy, the amount of oxygen you consume to maintain a given submaximum pace. A number of studies have shown a significant decrease in running economy for up to one week following a 30-minute downhill run on a 10 to 15 percent grade.

The Ups and Downs of Hill Training

Next time you run hills, follow these guidelines:

1) Since hill running uncouples the effort from the speed (i.e., you are running relatively slow even though you’re working hard), the exact pace is not as important as the effort. Aim for a specific effort rather than a specific speed. Monitoring heart rate with a heart rate monitor is a great way to make sure you’re working hard enough.

2) Since your pace will fluctuate substantially when running hills, focus on maintaining an even effort rather than pace.

3) To increase VO2max, use a hill that takes at least three minutes to climb. If run at about 5K effort, your heart rate, stroke volume (the volume of blood pumped by the heart per beat), and rate of oxygen consumption can rise up to their maximum values. (In a laboratory setting, the VO2max test is almost always performed using an increase in treadmill grade as a way to use more muscle mass and get runners to reach their VO2)

4) When running downhill, shorten your stride to prevent over-striding and emphasize a quicker leg turnover, which will keep momentum going forward. You should feel like it’s controlled falling.

5) Given the stressful nature of downhill running, treat downhill workouts as hard sessions and give yourself time to recover with two to three days of easy running afterward. Be sure to back off of the hills in the final couple weeks before a race.

6) Add downhills to the training a little at a time. Start with a short, gradual slope of about two to three percent, and progress to steeper and longer descents.

Hill Workouts

Be sure to warm up and cool down before and after each workout.

Hill Run

A basic run of 4 to 8 miles that includes hills of varying lengths and grades. 

Long Hill Reps

Run 5 to 6 x ½-mile uphill (5-8% grade) at 5K race pace effort with jog back down as recovery. 

Short Hill Reps

Sprint 8 to 10 x 100 meters uphill (15-20% grade) with jog back down as recovery. Exaggerate your arm swing, lean into the hill, and focus on pushing off with the ball of your foot and picking your back leg up as quickly as possible. 

Uphill/Downhill Reps

Run 4 x ½-mile uphill + ¼-mile downhill (2-3% grade) at 5K race pace effort with 3 minutes jog recovery.

Short Downhill Reps

Run 8 to 10 x 100 meters nearly all-out downhill (2-3% grade) with jog back uphill as recovery.

Hill Accelerators

Run 4 to 8 x 200- to 400-meter hill, running the bottom of the hill at race pace effort (leading into the hill from a 200-meter flat section at race pace) and accelerating the last 50 meters of the hill and 100 meters from the top, with jog back down as recovery. The focus of this workout is the acceleration at the top of the hill, which is opposite to the recovery that runners naturally want to take at the top of a hill. When you get to the top of the hill, remind yourself to pump your arms to help you accelerate and lengthen your stride, which will have shortened on the hill.

Hill Bounding

Using an exaggerated running motion, bound 6 to 8 times up a steep hill (15-20% grade) for 40 to 50 meters and jog back down. Try to achieve as much horizontal distance with each bound. Focus on fully extending your push-off leg and driving your knee of the forward leg up.


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