Hills: Anyone’s Playground
Jacob Adkin is a GB Mountain Runner and king of running uphill having recently won the British Uphill Mountain Running Championships. Below he talks about how best to approach running on the hills and why it is so beneficial for your training.
Whether you are seasoned athlete, or just starting out on your path into running, you are at some point going to find yourself at the bottom of a hill. You may have intentionally planned a route taking in this feature, or you may have been minding your own business when suddenly the incline grows unnoticed under your feet. There is that short period of time when you contemplate your predicament – should I continue along this more challenging path, or I do a U-turn and find a flatter route?
Reluctance is the dominant feeling often sighted when a hill presents itself. Pretty much everyone feels this, but why? As humans we are naturally programmed to make life easier for ourselves, and so when your brain registers that hill in front of your eyes, it questions your motives for ascending it. Your legs and lungs need to work much harder to compensate for the extra energy required by your muscles. So why put yourself through this?
The saying “hill-work is speed-work in disguise” really does speak the truth! Women’s marathon world record holder
Paula Radcliffe used rolling hill workouts as a staple of her training. Of course, there is a specific athletic discipline set aside for those who choose to run up and down one or several hills – hill running. However, the strength gained by utilising the training approach of athletes in this realm are useful for those in any discipline, be it track, road or cross-country. Like any other form of session, hills present a challenge to both the body and the mind – it just often seems to require a larger amount of ‘psyching up’ beforehand. Get in the right frame of mind however and a hill session, once completed, provides an unrivalled sense of satisfaction and pride. Improving your ability in this area can extend the radius to which your other runs can take you. Linking together several summits, reaching them as efficiently as you can and then continuing on your way, is the most fulfilling way to spend your time outdoors.
For those who have kept their runs to the flatter areas up to now, simply using a more undulating route is a great starting point. Your legs can then gradually become familiar with the different running action required, rather than going straight into doing any hill rep sessions. There are many places around Edinburgh that are good for this such as Braids, Holyrood Park and Craiglockhart. Consistently completing one or two of your runs a week on these hillier routes, and progressively increasing your time on them, will improve your muscle, tendon and ligament strength, as well as your cardiovascular system. This is vital before beginning any kind of hill rep session.
What to try
Having increased your time in hillier terrain, begin to increase the effort level on the ascents during a run, using the sections in between to recover with easy running. You can do this with just one of the hills on your route to begin with, with the aim of completing a run having pushed all the climbs.
These sessions can be introduced after several weeks of increasing the length of your hilly fartlek, and replaces this run. Hill repetitions are a simple concept: run hard up a hill for a set distance or time, then jog/walk back down to where you started for the recovery. For your first sessions, find a gradual incline on which you can run up to 1 minute on. You should finish the session feeling like you could do one or two more reps. As you tick off further sessions, increase the number of reps, before then beginning to increase the distance/time spent climbing the hill, dropping the number of reps appropriately. Once you have reached 3-5 minute reps and it feels more manageable, find new climbs of steeper gradients for your session.
Long hilly runs
One of the best ways to increase your mental and physical ability on hills is to start doing your long runs over hilly terrain. The Pentland Hills just outside Edinburgh are perfect for this. Running longer over rougher and ever-changing terrain both challenges your perception of what you can achieve, as well as your physical fitness. Plus it’s just a great adventure!
If you are familiar with flat interval workouts or have been doing some of the sessions described above for a while, hill sprints can provide an extra stimulus to your training. They are very functional strengthening exercise and will help build power. Towards the end of an easy run, find a hill and run up at a hard but not all-out effort for 10-15 seconds (less for steeper hills). Give yourself plenty of recovery time by walking down and waiting for your breath to reach near to a normal rate before starting the next one. Start with 3-4 reps and increase over time to 6-8. The key point to focus on during hill sprints is your form: pushing off strongly with the ball of your feet, arms driving simultaneously, and maintaining a straight line from feet to head with no tilt at the hips.
Strength & conditioning
It is a good idea to include a strengthening routine to compliment your running, and there are some exercises which are more specific to hill running, which includes:
• Calf raises
• Split squat
• Single leg balance
Alongside other bodyweight exercises, these help focus in on strengthening the areas used more in hill running than other disciplines.
Hill running form
Running up and down hills is inherently more tiring than running on the flat. To ensure you are covering the ground as efficiently as possible and therefore able to reach more summits, follow these pointers.
• Try to keep as upright as possible to avoid ‘crunching’ over. Spending long periods bent over from the hips will put excess strain on your lower back. Concentrate on a straight line from your feet, up your legs and through your spine to your head.
• Use a midfoot or forefoot strike. This usually happens naturally without having to consciously think about it while going uphill.
• Take lots of little steps. This will ensure you don’t overreach with each stride, and will make climbing much easier.
• Use your arms. Your arms carry you forward, or up in this case - drive your arms, and your legs have to follow.
• It is perfectly ok to walk. As you start out exploring hills, walking can be more appropriate. In fact, on steeper inclines it can be more efficient than running, and some runners find that walking uphill suits them better. When walking uphill, use your hands to push down on your lower quads just above your knee, driving yourself upwards.
Perfecting your downhill running will take a lot of practice. It is very hard on the body, so take descents very easy when you start.
• Land on your midfoot. It will decrease the force sent up your legs on ground impact and therefore minimises muscle soreness.
• Imagine your body perpendicular to the ground. This will encourage the correct stride length and ensure your feet land under your centre of gravity.
• Find softer surfaces. Running downhill on concrete will increase the impact forces, so if it’s suitable, use more forgiving surfaces such as grass or a trail.
• Let your arms flail. Your arms are what keep you balanced, so let them move naturally as you descend.
Hill running is one of if not the most fun ways to explore new places you otherwise would not reach. There’s nothing more exciting than planning a run in the hills and finding what’s out there. Whether you are discovering hill running or looking for some new ideas, using the steps above will ensure you don’t lose motivation and continue to enjoy it more and more! Happy running!