As runners, we are no strangers to hills. Hills are extremely useful tools in helping us develop run specific strength, especially when done in a short and fast manner (hill sprints). And hey, if you’re like Nate, Craig and me, it’s almost impossible to go on a run without running up and down hills the whole time!
Hill running is awesome for a few reasons:
- It is a great introduction to speed work. The lower impact and the reduced freedom of movement both act as stepping stones to pure speed work down the road.
- The increased demand of going uphill requires more activity from muscle fibers we may not be activating otherwise. Bringing more muscle fibers to the party helps with endurance because of higher motor unit cycling potential.
- Hill running “fixes” many mechanical faults we see on flat ground, such as over-striding, over-rotation, sluggish cadence, excessive heel-striking, and more.
Here are 3 quick tips to help you become a stronger and more efficient hill runner!
Tip 1. Stay Tall!
A big tendency that we see in hill running is a loss of posture. Particularly in the hips.
As the incline of a hill increases, so does our perception of forward leaning. And what we usually do to deal with that, is bend over at the waist (as if we were reaching for something on the floor).
Bending over like this can put a bunch of unneeded stress on our low backs. Also it becomes more difficult for us to reach full hip extension as well, making us less powerful and efficient.
So let’s stop it. But of course there will be an incline limit to our ability to stay tall. At a certain point it is not possible (because of ankle ROM, strength, balance, etc). But staying tall will always benefit you.
When running up a hill, you want to stay tall (just like on flat ground). I often times say, “hips into the hill” to help runners focus on driving the hips forward and avoiding the bent over position. It takes a lot of focus!
Drill: Tall Hill Repeats
- 4×0:30 run up a “runable” hill (no more than 5º). Walk back to base between reps.
- Jog in place to start. Establish your tall posture. Then run for 0:30 up the hill, constantly reminding yourself to drive your hips into the hill.
Tip 2. Keep Cadence High!
We generally advise people run with a cadence around 90 steps per minute (spm). Doing so fixes many mechanical faults (over-striding, arm swing funk, torso over-rotation, etc).
Our basic goal with cadence on hills is to maintain our 90spm. And since our stride length will be decreased due to slower speeds and the new vertical distance component, 90spm will feel much faster than usual. I would emphasize that people have to willingly adopt a shorter stride here.
Here’s a test: Over-stride your way up a hill. Literally bound on up with the biggest steps you can take. You won’t be able to do it for very long because of how tiring it is.
If we can keep my cadence as high as we do on flat surfaces, we will be able to maintain a more efficient rhythm not only for the hill but for the rest of the run.
Drill: Cadence Specific Hill Repeats
- 4×1:00 run up “runable” hill (no more than 5º).
- Run in place at desired cadence (85-90), then run up the hill maintaining that rhythm. Walk back to base between reps.
- Count your steps on one leg for 60 seconds. It should be 85-90 steps! A metronome is also a very useful tool for this drill! App suggestion: MetroTimer.
Tip 3. Relax Your Ankle!
One thing that always comes to mind when thinking about hill running, is lit up calves. While this is not completely avoidable, we can definitely make it better!
When running up a hill, we are (generally) required to use a greater range of motion in our ankle than on flat ground. And if we lack this range (in this case dorsiflexion) we have no choice but to run up on our toes.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a test: While you’re standing here reading this (you’re standing, right?), go ahead and push up onto your toes for the rest of the article. What muscle is working hard to keep you up there? That’s right, your calves.
So make sure your heels kisses the ground with every step. This heel kiss saves the calves in your stride and prevents the calf meltdown catastrophe.
Worried about heel striking? Especially as the hill gets steeper, the likelihood of over striding (and heel striking) goes away. Go ahead, try it out.
There is, of course, a spectrum of relaxation. You should by no means be loosey goosey in the ankle. But allowing a little more slack will do your lower leg a lot of benefit! Remember: slight heel kiss.
Drill: Heel Kiss
- 4×0:30 run up “runable” hill (no more than 5º). Walk back to base between reps.
- Allow your heel to kiss the ground every step.
- Note: If you have stiff ankles, this drill may be difficult. BUT, that’s a red flag that your ankles need some mobility work!
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