Gotta love those hills!

“Running hills breaks up your rhythm and forces your muscles to adapt to different stresses. The result? You become a stronger runner.” ~ Eamonn Coughlin

This morning when I head out for my 6 Miler I felt like doing some hill workout.  I am lucky enough to have the Tufts University Hills at about a mile away from home which is perfect to warm up.  So there I was ready to tackle those steep hills.  After a mile I hit a couple of rolling hills and then the hills became steeper and steeper until I reach the top where the Tufts campus is.  The length of the hills varies, it goes from 150 to 400 Meters.  After this nice mix of short, medium and long hills, there is the downhill where I recovered.  Went up again and run few hills around the campus for about a mile.  After that I head back hitting the same hills backwards. I ended up with about 4 Miles of hill workout!

Some runners don’t like hill running because it’s hard  and some even avoid them completely.  But running hills can be as fun as they are challenging but mostly it is very beneficial to runners.  Hill repeats is a great workout that improve both aerobic capacity and your body’s ability to clear lactic acid after a hard effort.  It is an essential part of any training program  reducing  your risk of injuries and it changes up your training preventing boredom.  According to the principle of training specificity, if you want to improve a specific part of physical fitness, you must train specifically for it. This means one thing: you need to do some hill workouts.  In my case is pretty important since I am training for the Boston Marathon which is famous for “the Newton Hills” and “Heartbreak Hill.” There are 4 Newton hills in 2 pairs basically. Miles 16, 17 and miles 19 and 20. Heartbreak  Hill ends at mile 21.  Those are really the only major up-hills on the course overall the course has a net elevation drop, so it’s really a downhill marathon, so I should practice running hard downhill also.
Above all, you need a positive mental attitude toward hills. If you dread hills you will not run your best on them.  Dr. Jerry Lynch, is an internationally known expert in the field of applied sports psychology advises “Turn hate into love.” You must affirm that you love hills because they make you a better runner, and they give you a psychological boost over other runners who still hate them. Affirm over and over, I love hills, I love hills…” says lynch.


So, what are the benefits of a hill work?

  • Running hills is a form of resistance training that builds up the muscles in your calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. These muscles are forced to contract more powerfully they do in flat running because of the pressure to overcome gravity. The result is the increased of power and strength that translate into more speed.
  • Increased quadriceps and hip flexor power allowing to lift the knees higher increasing  hip flexibility and therefore stride length.
  • Improved arm swing. You pump your arms more vigorously to get up the hill faster.
  • The less impact while running hills because of shorter stride, the use of a variety of muscles improve the elasticity of muscles and tendon reducing the chance of injury.
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness. Uphill runs improves the aerobic capacity which basically means that the body adapts to the cardiac output at higher intensity becoming more efficient at using oxygen during exercise.
  • Hill running adds variety to your running routine.
  • Improves lactate tolerance.
  • It builds confidence. The improved strength and technique running hills will give a confidence boost making the hills less intimidating when you will confront them on race day.
  • Hill running is mentally challenging because of the intensity of it.  Therefore, it builds the stamina making us mentally stronger and ready to push through barriers.

Proper form for running UP hills

Running uphill requires a slightly different form than standard running, and your form can make all the difference in how you perform. Few things to keep in mind when running uphill:

  • Keep an upright posture but with a very slight lean forward into the hill while maintaining proper form.
  • Keep your head up and don’t stare at your toes. Staring at your toes is easy to do but it tends to make you bend at the hips and break your upright position, not to mention the risk of collisions.
  • Avoid blowing all your energy on fighting each hill. Relax and take it easy on the uphill. The goal is to waste only slightly more energy than when running on the flat. Instead, shorten your stride and keep your torso tall focusing on maintaining your effort  level rather than pace. Doing this you’ll reach the top of the hill feeling good so you can let the hill work for you going down – even effort.
  • Drive your arms! This is important, make sure you remember to use your arms in a controlled pumping motion to create a lot of more force. Don’t leave them stiff at your sides.
  • Shorten your stride and focus on lifting and driving those knees.
  • Make shorter and more frequent strides.  If you run with bigger strides you stretch your muscles out too much tiring them quickly so you won’t be able to keep up the pace.  Keep your pace with a shorter stride and more frequent footfalls that helps keep your pace up and your legs will not tire out.
That's how you shouldn't look going up the hill=)

That's how you shouldn't look going up the hill=)

Proper form for running DOWN hills

  • Don’t hold back. Go for it! Lean forward and use gravity to help you coast down the hill. Running downhill is really all about falling gracefully.  The hill naturally pulls you down together with gravity so avoid fighting it.
  • Lengthen out your stride to take advantage of the hill
  • Land on the balls of your feet with your knees bent.
  • Let your arms swing to the sides and across your body to help keep your balance and to rotate your hips to improve stride length
  • Engage your core. A strong core will help keep you upright avoiding  the temptation to lean into gravity. Work on  those crunches and planks.

How To Run Hill Workouts

Hill running, or hill repeats, does not mean simply sprinting up a hill but is a specific hill technique.  Try to find a hill with a gradual 5-10% grade that is 100 and 300 meters long. Then repeatedly runs or bounds up the hill and stride down the hill as fast as possible.
When you start to do hill running, begin with around 4 repeats, and gradually increase week by week until you can get up to 8 repeats. Remember, never start your workout without warming up before hand!

Short, Medium and Long Hill Training

  • Short Hills. They are relatively short hills of 100 to 200 meters that you repeat multiple times. It usually takes no more that 20 seconds to run up and has a 5-15 degree inclination. Because these hills are short, you should run them at a fast pace with a walk or slow jog back down the hill as a recovery. Short hills are beneficial to develop the explosive strength necessary to run a good 800 meters or finish strong in a 5-K.
  • Medium Hills. A medium hill is one that has a 6-10 degree gradient and takes between 30 to 90 seconds to run up. This is the length of hill is a good trainer for middle-distance runners, because it combines the muscular endurance benefits of the short hills while building tolerance of lactic acid.
  • Long Hills. A long hill is classified as one taking over 90 seconds to go up, regardless of the gradient. If 5-15 degrees gradient, the energy comes from aerobic sources, but if parts of the hill are steeper and you are running at top speed, there will still be an accumulation of blood lactate.

How often

As a general rule, hill training is done once per week – done properly, these sessions are very demanding. I usually do the short and medium hill training during the week and the long hills on my long run on the Newton hills.  Fortunately, being from the Boston-area I can make sure my long runs make their way by those hills. From my home the hills are about 7-8 Miles away, which means that by the time I run the four Newton hills (back and forth) I will have 8 to 13 miles on my legs.  Which means that my legs are pretty tired by then as they will be at mile 16 on the Boston Marathon course where I will start to hit the hills until the last infamous Heartbreak Hill at mile 21!

Fun fact

The nickname “Heartbreak Hill” originated with an event in the 1936 race. On this stretch, defending champion John A. Kelley caught race leader Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, giving Brown a consolatory pat on the shoulder as he passed. His competitive drive apparently stoked by this gesture, Tarzan Brown rallied, pulled away from Kelley, and went on to win—in the words of Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason, “breaking Kelley’s heart.”Get ready to roll with the hills and have some fun with it!

Reaching the top of the Hill

“Hills are speedwork in disguise.” ~ Frank Shorter


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