Running on Undulating Terrain

Running on undulating terrain

Including running on hilly/undulating terrain as part of your weekly running training can be a good way to improve the strength of muscles and tendons, running efficiency, and ensure you work all the major running muscles more evenly.

The benefits of running across undulating terrain

Why include undulating runs as part of your weekly training? There are a number of advantages to running across undulating terrain.

1. We work all the muscle groups more evenly

Firstly, the undulations, or changes in gradient/incline (uphill, horizontal, decline), affects the level of activation of different muscle groups throughout the run. By running across different inclines we help to ensure that we work all the major muscle groups. This ensures that overall there is a more equal level of activation across all the major muscle groups.

2. The type of muscular contraction (concentric and eccentric) changes throughout the run

Secondly, the type of muscular contraction changes depending on whether we are running uphill or downhill. When we run uphill we have to generate additional force to overcome gravity. We also get less energy return with each foot strike compared with horizontal, or, downhill running. In the case of uphill running the muscular contraction is a concentric contraction. This is where a muscle contracts whilst shortening. With downhill running we see increased levels of a different type of muscle contraction, called ‘eccentric’ muscle contractions.

Eccentric muscle contractions occur when a muscle lengthens whilst under tension. This happens because the force applied to the muscle is greater than the force produced by the muscle, causing the muscle to lengthen. Eccentric muscle contractions play a key role in the development of maximal muscular strength and power. They help to strengthen muscle fibres and provide a level of protection against delayed onset muscle soreness. In addition, knee extensor strength has also been shown to benefit from the eccentric loading associated with downhill running.

So, by running across undulating terrain we get the combined benefits of training our muscles using both concentric and eccentric muscular contractions. In this way running across undulating terrain can be beneficial for improving the strength of key muscles and tendons, can help to protect against the negative effects of delayed onset muscle soreness as well as improving muscular endurance.

3. Our foot strike pattern changes throughout the run

Thirdly, by running across undulating terrain our foot strike pattern changes throughout the run. When we run uphill our foot strike tends to shift to more of a mid to fore-foot strike. When we run downhill we tend to shift to more of a heel strike. And, on flat terrain it tends to be somewhere between a heel strike and mid-foot strike, depending on our running speed and natural running style. In this way our foot strike changes throughout the run.

So, why is this beneficial? Shouldn’t we always be trying to land on our mid-foot? The real benefit here is that every time that our foot strike changes we change the peak stress point – the point where greatest mechanical stress occurs. If we always land the same way then the stress point will always be the same and that’s where problems and injuries can occur. In terms of foot strike, everyone is different – what’s an efficient style for one runner might not be efficient for another. Also, different foot strikes styles are more, or less, efficient under different conditions – both running speed and gradient have an effect here.

4. Work rate changes throughout the run

Fourthly, by including undulations throughout the run our work rate varies slightly throughout the run. Even if heart rate remains fairly stable the running power we would see significant fluctuations in running power throughout the run due to changing gradients. This can be beneficial for overall improvements in your running.

Although it is clearly beneficial to include some hill running in to your usual easy/steady continuous running, be careful not to include too much. Hill running depletes muscle glycogen levels more rapidly, raises your heart rate, increase the general intensity of the run whilst reducing the average speed of the run, compared with running on flat terrain.

Unless you’re a fell runner, ultra runner, or targeting cross country races, then you would generally only include 1-2 continuous runs across undulating terrain, per week. I find that incorporating a hilly route as part of my weekly long run, works well. This improves muscle fatigue resistance, and hilly route can increase the depletion of muscle glycogen during the long run.

Some examples of how to include undulating runs within your training:

  • Including undulating terrain within your weekly long run or mid week steady state runs.
  • Running threshold pace intervals across undulating terrain or around an undulating circuit e.g. 3 x 10minutes around undulating route/loop – this could be either a small or longer undulating loop. The key is to have several uphill and downhill sections per threshold interval.
  • Running shorter undulating aerobic intervals – an example could 6 x 5minutes at 10k intensity around an undulating loop, with 1:30-2:00 recoveries. Again ensure there are several undulations per interval

Summary of running across hilly/undulating terrain

  • Including hilly/undulating routes into your easy/steady state runs can be a simple way to improve leg strength, running economy/exercise economy, and prepare you for the rigours of a hill interval session
  • The uphills increase the force of concentric muscle contractions whilst the downhills can be a good way to strengthen muscle fibres eccentrically which will help to protect muscles against the effects of DOMS.
  • These runs helps to ensure different muscle groups are activated more equally throughout the run
  • Foot strike position changes throughout, which helps to reduce the risk of overuse injuries
  • One to two weekly run across undulating terrain is sufficient unless you are specifically training for fell running, or cross country races.
  • Incorporating hilly routes into the weekly long run may be a good way to speed muscle glycogen depletion.
  • Undulating loops can be used as part of a threshold, or above threshold intensity interval session
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