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Hill Work for runners and athletes
Enhance running speeds and shorten your foot-strike

Improve muscle power, elasticity, co-ordination, speed and endurance

Hill work, at its simplest is finding a hill that takes about 45 seconds to run up and jog down to recover.

Unfortunately many more questions then follow. How many repetitions? How long? And how steep is the gradient? The answers to these questions depend not just on your personal event but also on your ability to train on hills.

Use a partner when training on hills. It is good competition and makes the training easier.

Any route with hills can be used as your hill work.

Jog between the hills. The distance between them is irrelevant, just vary the route every week or so, and this will be a good introduction into hill work. You do not have to time the length of the hills and the recovery, just make it part of your everyday run and enjoy the training. Running hard over the top of a hill and keeping the pace going instead of easing up, is another method of training which runners use later in race situations.

Whilst hill running, your body weight becomes a resistance to push against, so the driving muscles from which your leg power is derived have to work harder. The technique is to aim for is a "bouncy" style with good knee lift and a good degree of movement in the ankle.

You should be aiming to drive hard. Pushing upwards with your toes, flexing your ankle as much as possible, landing on the front part of the foot and then letting the heel come down below the level of the toes as the weight is taken. This stretches the calf muscles upwards and downwards as much as possible which overtime will improve their power and elasticity. You should look straight ahead as you run (not at your feet) and ensure your neck, shoulders and arms are free of tension.

All athletes must warm up before any exercise.

Many runners don't. If you attempt hill work without first warming up, then injury will follow very close behind. Read more about warming up exercises...

Hill work should be avoided if you are having problems with your ankles or Achilles, since it stretches a runners calf muscle much more than any other exercise and puts stresses on the tendons.

Hill work results in the runners calf muscles generating work at a higher rate, becoming more powerful. The calf muscle achieves this by recruiting more muscle fibres, around two or three times as many when compared to running on the flat. The "bouncy" action also improves the power of the quads in the front of the thigh as they provide the high knee lift which is required, if you are performing these correctly. This training results in higher running speeds and shorter foot-strike times.

This type of training develops:

power and muscle elasticity.
co-ordination, encouraging the proper use of arm action during the driving phase and feet in the support phase.
strength endurance.
maximum speed and strength.
lactate tolerance.
improves stride frequency and length.

Note that there is a difference between short, medium and long hill work - the muscles used being specific to the gradient and length.

Short hills

A short hill takes about 30 seconds to run up and has an inclination of no more than about 15 degrees. Your energy source on short hills is entirely anaerobic. This is a relatively short hill, run at pace, with vigorous arm movements. You should focus on a running technique which has vigorous arm and knee drive.

The session is anaerobic, so the recovery time can be long - a walk back down or a slow jog. The total volume will depend on your fitness and your reason for doing it. A sprinter looking for strength might do 10 repetitions of 15 second duration up a steep slope with a long recovery, whilst distance runners trying to improve their sprinting speed might do 30 repetitions.

The length and gradient is determined by your particular event, for example:

8 to 10 repetitions over 50 metres for sprinters and hurdlers
8 to 10 repetitions over 150 metres for middle distance runners
8 to 10 repetitions over 200 metres for long distance athletes

Medium hills

A medium hill is one which takes more than 30 but less than about 90 seconds. This length is a particularly good distance for middle-distance athletes, because it combines the benefits of stressing local muscular endurance and improves the tolerance of lactic acid.

Using a steep hill with a gradient of "one in six", for between 30 and 90 seconds, will result in the use of both energy systems, aerobic and anaerobic, with you experiencing a build up in blood lactate as you go further up.

Although the session will usually be quite fast and competitive, it is important that you remember to use your arms correctly and lifts up your knees. The volume of the session will depend on your particular event.

This type of training is of course open to all abilities and all ages of runners. Whilst younger athletes may have a shorter hill with less repetitions, the elite may have a steeper gradient and more repetitions.

Long hills

A long hill is one which takes more than say 90 seconds, but may take three minutes or more. Here the main limiting factor will be your cardiovascular system.

These can be used in two ways:

as a hard aerobic training session.
as a hard time-trial session.

As these sessions are relatively long, they would be especially beneficial for the longer distance runner, say 10k and upwards.

Mixed hills

Mixed hill training is about using the hills around you - the session being similar to a Fartlek. Hills of varying gradient and length are used in the same session. One advantage of mixed hills is that it is not as boring as just one - but don't tell that to a "non runner"!

Sand hills

Herb Elliot, one of the greatest middle distance athletes of all time, held the world mile record and won Olympic Gold - and trained on sand hills.

There are many advantages of including sand hills in your training. When the sand is soft, you must work much harder and increase your leg speed to keep yourself going. And there is a reduced risk of damaging your legs through impact injuries. In general, sand hills training has the same effect as normal hills, but the distances can be reduced because of the difficulty.

Developing Strength

Session 1

Choose a hill with a slope of not less than 10% and a length of approximately 350 metres.
Run up at tempo pace with rapid stride rate and good knee lift.
Jog back down and repeat.
Start with 2 sets of 4 repetitions and gradually increase over time, with 2 or 3 minutes rest between sets.

Example of work outs on treadmill

Session 2 (treadmill)

Set the treadmill to 5% incline.
Run at tempo pace for 3 minutes.
Between 2 and 3 minute jog recovery.
Start with 4 repetitions and gradually increase over time.

Session 3 (treadmill)

Set treadmill pace to your 10km pace and with no break.
Run for 2 minutes with a 0% incline.
Increase incline by 1% every minute.
Continue until you can not run any further.
Complete recovery and repeat.

Read our Running Programme for Beginners...

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