Hill Running Training

Hill Running Training

Hill running training is one of the best ways to develop specific strength, and conditioning, that will directly transfer across to improved running performance. It combines the benefits of interval training (improved efficiency, aerobic capacity, cadence and stride length) with very specific strength training.

Simply put, if you’re a runner then you’ll be hard pushed to find a more specific, and more effective, form of resistance training. It’s also extremely time effective with improvements often seen following just a few weeks of hill running.

Hill training is also one of the most versatile forms of running training. In fact, there’s numerous ways that you can tweak these workouts to suit any type of runner and race distance.

I've tried all the different variants of hill training. And after many years of using hill training to improve running performance, I've put together a series of articles covering the most effective and beneficial types of hill training. You can view each of those articles below.

Hill Running Articles

So, what are the benefits of hill running?..

Benefits of Hill Running

Hill running has many benefits for endurance runners including:

  • Enhances neuromuscular co-ordination and running efficiency
  • Increases running cadence and lengthens stride length
  • Improves muscular endurance and fatigue resistance
  • Develops anaerobic capacity and endurance
  • Increases muscular strength and power
  • Strengthens muscles and muscle fibres
  • Improves aerobic capacity and fitness
  • Strengthens connective tissue
  • Reduces injury risk and DOMS
  • Makes you a faster runner

Increased muscle fibre recruitment

One of the key benefits associated with hill running is a significantly greater level of muscle fibre activation and recruitment of a number of key muscle groups (Sloniger et al., 1997). In particular uphill running causes a greater level of activation in the quadriceps, calves, soleus (lower calf), and glutes. In contrast, to running on flat terrain there is reduced activation of the hamstring group of muscles (Swanson and Caldwell, 2000; Sloniger et al., 1997).

Improved strength, power, and efficiency

In this way, including regular hill training can really help to strengthen your key running muscles. In fact, hill running is a highly specific form of resistance training, and leads to increased activation of the key muscles used when running.

As such hill training leads to improvements in muscle strength, power and neuro-muscular co-ordination. And since these are all linked to improved running efficiency, you can also expect to see improvements in running economy – essentially making you a more efficient runner. In fact, research has shown that running efficiency can be improved significantly, through regular hill training.

Develops both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning

Another key benefit of Hill training, is improvements to both aerobic and anaerobic power. This shouldn’t be surprising since any improvement in strength, power and neuromuscular coordination, will improve your ability to generate force both aerobically and anaerobically.

As well as improving strength, hill training – especially when intervals are 30seconds or longer – work the key energy systems used when running: the aerobic systems and anaerobic “lactate” energy systems.

In particular, hill training places a much greater emphasis on anaerobic energy metabolism. And as an added bonus, this also leads to significant improvements in your aerobic endurance and conditioning.

Highly specific strength training for runners

Hill training is a particularly good type of strength training for endurance runners. So, why is hill running considered to be like strength training? And why is it so effective?

Firstly, hill running requires your muscles to work harder. When you run hills, your muscles have to contract more forcefully, and recruit more muscle fibres, in order to overcome gravity, and power you up the hill.

At the most basic level, strength training is about increasing a muscles strength ability to apply force.

Hill running has the same effect, it increases the strength of your running muscles. And importantly it adds an endurance element to this. In this way hill training, increases your strength endurance, by improving your ability to apply force over a sustained period of time.

So, why is hill running so effective? Well, the key point here is; for strength training to be effective, it must be specific. And the more specific an activity, the better.

Simply put, sport specific refers to when you’re working muscles in a way that is similar to their use during a particular sport. And since hill running, involves ‘running’, it’s about as sport specific as you can get!

Why is increasing strength important for endurance?

Increasing muscle strength has a number of benefits for runners.

Firstly, when we strengthen our muscles they become more efficient. Which improves your running efficiency – effectively reducing the energy cost of running. And allowing you to run at faster running speeds.

Stronger muscles also mean that you’ll have greater fatigue resistance. And you will also see improvements in your lactate threshold running speed.

As well as increasing the strength of larger running muscles – like your glutes, quads, calves and hamstrings – hill running is also very effective for developing strength in smaller muscles, like your hip flexors. Which can lead to improvements in stride length and running cadence. It can also improve the stability in your hip and pelvic region. All of which can help to improve your running efficiency.

Downhill running and delayed onset muscle sorenesss (DOMS)

Unfortunately, downhill running is often overlooked by endurance runners. We often focus on training to run uphill and on flat terrain, but devote very little (if any) time to downhill running. However, if you’re racing over an undulating course or a long distance event, then you really should include some downhill running. Why is that?…

Well when we race on undulating courses the downhill sections can negatively affect performance. In particular downhill running can cause a decrease in running efficiency.

That is, unless you devote some specific training time in order to condition yourself against these.

So what are the negative effects of downhill running?

Firstly, Intense, or prolonged periods of downhill running, can lead to high levels of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Mainly due to the increased levels of eccentric muscle contraction which occur during downhill running. Which is known to cause increased levels of muscle soreness.

Importantly, research has shown that DOMS can negatively affect your strength, stride length, running efficiency and reduce aerobic metabolism for up to 3 days following down hill running (Chen et al., 2007; Braun and Dutto, 2007).

But here’s the good news…

Downhill running can also improve your running

You can actually protect against this, by adding some downhill running training into your running training plan. In fact, research has shown you can protect against the negative effects of downhill running – strength loss and DOMS – by including either eccentric strength exercises, or specific downhill running (Marqueste et al., 2008; Malm et al., 2004; Eston et al., 1996;)

Some of the benefits of downhill running include: 

  • Increasing running speed, 
  • Protecting against DOMS
  • Strengthens tendons and connective tissue
  • The adaptations lead to reduced injury risk

You can read about downhill running in more detail here: downhill running training.

Combined uphill and downhill running 

As runners, hill training often focuses on uphill running. As I’ve just mentioned, downhill running can also be an effective form of running training.

In fact, research suggests that combining up hill and down hill training can be particularly effective for improving your maximum running speed (Paradisis et al., 2009; Paradisis and Cooke, 2006).

In these studies, researchers found that combined uphill-downhill running was more effective than horizontal sprint training, for the development of maximum running speed.

Why is this important for endurance runners? Well, any improvement in maximum running speed, gives you the potential to also run faster at sub-maximal running speeds.

A simple way to integrate uphill and downhill training into the same session is tempo hill training, which is similar to short hill repeats. However, during tempo hills you maintain a steady pace on the down hill phase rather than the usual easy pace jog recovery.

Hill Training Summary

  • Hill training is a highly specific form of strength training for runners
  • There are a number of benefits to hill training including increased muscle strength, power and power, stride frequency and length, neuromuscular co-ordination, running efficiency, fatigue resistance, muscular endurance, aerobic and anaerobic power and it helps to protect leg muscle-fibres against damage and DOMS
  • Hill intervals increase muscle fibre activation and recruitment of muscle fibres in key leg muscles.
  • The muscles that show the greatest increase in activation during uphill running include the quadriceps, calf, and glutes
  • Hill training is particularly effective at developing hip flexor strength which may improve stride length, stride rate and stability in the hip and pelvic region.
  • Downhill running can have short term negative effects including DOMS, reduced strength and running economy. These negative effects last for up to 3 days and then return to normal levels.
  • Integrating downhill running into training can help to protect against DOMS and strength losses following subsequent downhill running.
  • Combining downhill and uphill running appears to be effective for improving maximum running speed.

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Hill Running Training References:

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Toyomura J, Mori H, Tayashiki K, Yamamoto M, Kanehisa H, Maeo S. (2018) Efficacy of downhill running training for improving muscular and aerobic performances. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2018 Apr;43(4):403-410. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2017-0538.