Hills – some us of athletes love them, some of us hate them, and some of us love and hate them in equal measure. Nevertheless, whether you love them or hate them, they can greatly improve your performance by helping to develop the various different forms of strength. So, let’s take a look at how to effectively incorporate hills into your training programme.
With all of the runners that I coach, I incorporate hills into their training programmes in one of four different ways – short hill sprints, interval training on an uphill gradient, intervals over rolling terrain, and medium/long length runs on undulating terrain.
Hill sprints can be used to develop both power and speed, and can be undertaken at the end of an easy run. In order to obtain maximum benefit, a few factors need to be borne in mind. Firstly, the hill needs to be of a sufficient gradient if it is to provide adequate resistance for power development but not so steep that it forces you to lose your normal run technique. Around 10 degrees is ideal for most people. Secondly, the sprints need to be at maximum effort or close to it, so as to trigger the recruitment and development of additional muscle fibres. Thirdly, a solid recovery is required in between sprints on account of their intensity. I know that some of you will still be skeptical about sprinting up a hill, but believe it or not, the risk of obtaining an injury when sprinting uphill is far lower compared to sprinting on the flat.
Hill repeats or interval running on an incline can be vary in duration from 20 seconds to several minutes. I usually veer towards the lower end of the scale with most of the athletes that I coach – sticking to within the 30 to 90 second bracket. However, with longer endurance athletes (marathon, half Ironman, Ironman, etc) I often utilise repeats ranging from 2 to 5 minutes in duration. A hill of about 6-10 degrees in gradient is usually optimal – generally opting for the steeper end of the scale for shorter repeats and the lower end of the scale for longer repeats. Moreover, in comparison to intervals on the flat, a much longer recovery is required and a reduced number of reps should be performed on account of the fact that fatigue accumulates much quicker on a hill.
Intervals on rolling or undulating terrain will usually involve intervals ranging from 3 to 6 minutes in duration, which are performed at around 5k-10k pace. The terrain should be rolling in nature so as to act as a rhythm disrupter ie. it should constantly change from uphill to downhill. Only very occasionally will I incorporate these into a training plan. They can be enormously beneficial but great care must be taken when running downhill at speed. I usually reserve them for those training for cross country or middle distance runners who could benefit from added strength endurance. It is also very important to remember that the underfoot surface should be comprised of either grass or compact trail.
Easy/long runs over hilly terrain can be undertaken all year round, just so long as they aren’t performed too close to a race. They are probably the best method of developing strength endurance due to their sport specific nature, with both the uphill and downhill sections providing a distinct strength stimulus, due to the respective concentric and eccentric loading. The tempo of the run should be controlled throughout, and the key is to run to heart rate or by feel as opposed to running to pace, as it is very easy to overdo these runs. Occasionally, they can be spiced up by consciously increasing the tempo of the uphill sections or by incorporating surges into the runs.
Finally, let us turn our attention to cycling. The first, second and fourth categories of hill training outlined above can all be used to improve your performance on the bike. Hill sprints can be used to develop power, while uphill intervals and long spins over undulating terrain can both be used to develop strength endurance. What differentiates cycling and running with respect to hill training is that cadence (your number of revolutions per minute) and your body position (either in the saddle or out of it) can both be tweaked to provide a distinct training stimulus.