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Bite Size - What does Hill Running Do For You

Hill running has a strengthening effect as well as boosting your athlete's power and is ideal for those athletes who depend on high running speeds - football, rugby, basketball, cricket players and even runners. To reduce the possibility of injury hill training should be conducted once the athlete has a good solid base of strength and endurance.

What it does for you

In hill running, the athlete is using their body weight as a resistance to push against, so the driving muscles from which their leg power is derived have to work harder. The technique to aim for is a "bouncy" style where the athlete has a good knee lift and maximum range of movement in the ankle. They should aim to drive hard, pushing upwards with their toes, flexing their 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 and applies resistance which over time will improve their power and elasticity. The athlete should look straight ahead, as they run (not at their feet) and ensure their neck, shoulders and arms are free of tension. Many experts believe that the "bouncy" action is more important than the speed at which the athlete runs up the hills.

Hill work results in the calf muscles learning to contract more quickly and thereby generating work at a higher rate, they become 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 that is required.

For the athlete, when competing in their sport/event, it can mean higher running speeds and shorter foot strike times. Hill training offers the following benefits:

Helps develop power and muscle elasticity

Improves stride frequency and length

Develops coordination, encouraging the proper use of arm action during the driving phase and feet in the support phase develops control and stabilisation as well as improved speed (downhill running) promotes strength endurance

Develops maximum speed and strength (short hills)

Improves lactate tolerance (mixed hills)

The benefits of short, medium and long hills are quite different and can be used at different times of the year.

Short Hills

A short hill is one which takes no more than 30 seconds to run up and has an inclination between 5 and 15 degrees gradient. The athlete's energy source on short hills is entirely anaerobic. The athlete should focus on a running technique which has vigorous arm drive and high knee lift, with the hips, kept high, so that they are 'running tall', not leaning forwards.

The session is anaerobic, so the recovery time can be long, a walk back down the hill, or a slow jog of 60 to 90 seconds. The total volume will depend on the fitness of the athlete and the 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 whereas a distance runner who is trying to improve sprinting speed might do 30 repetitions of 15 seconds duration.

Short hills of 5 to 10-second duration will help improve the Adenosine Triphosphate and Phosphate-creatine (ATP+PC) energy system and hills of 15 to 30-second duration will help develop the ATP+PC+muscle glycogen energy system. Example of short hill sessions:

8 to 10 repetitions over 50 metres (sprinters and hurdlers)

8 to 10 repetitions over 40 metres (jumpers and throwers)

8 to 10 repetitions over 150 metres (middle distance athletes)

8 to 10 repetitions over 200 metres (long distance athletes)

Medium hills

A medium hill is one that takes between 30 to 90 seconds to run up. This length of a hill is a good distance for the middle-distance runner because it combines the benefits of the short hills with the stresses on local muscular endurance and tolerance of lactic acid. Use a hill as steep of one in six to one in ten, so that you can run at something near race pace. The energy source is both aerobic and anaerobic and the athlete will experience the build-up in blood lactate as they go further up the hill.

Although the session will usually be quite fast and competitive, it is important that style is emphasised. Scuttling up the hill with a short stride and forward lean may be the best way to get up in a race, but in training, we are trying to develop particular qualities. It is better, therefore, to go for a longer stride and higher knee lift: running tall with the hips pushed forwards, keeping the back upright. Again, the volume of the session depends on the individual.

A good practice is to increase the number by one or two each time the session comes around while trying to run them at about the same pace. The recovery is a slow jog back to the bottom, and when the times start falling much below those of the first few runs, it is time to stop.

Long hills

A long hill is one which takes from 90 seconds to three minutes plus. Here most of the energy comes from aerobic sources, but if parts of the hill are steep and they are running them hard, there will still be an accumulation of blood lactate. There will be local muscular fatigue in the leg muscles, and possibly in the abdominal muscles too, but the main limiting factor will be the athlete's cardiovascular system.

These hills can be used in two ways:

As a hard aerobic training session during the pre-competition season

As a hard time-trial session in the early part of the competition period

As these hill sessions are aerobic, the athlete will not use as much power per stride as the shorter hills, and so perhaps would not be used by middle-distance runners, except for one or two time-trial runs. They are particularly good for the cross country or road runner who is running distances of 10,000m and upwards. A session of, say eight three minutes, with a run back of four or five minutes, will make a good hard work out.

Mixed hill running

The attraction of mixed hill training is that it can be fitted in with the terrain the athlete is running on and can, therefore, be interesting and full of variety. If they do a fartlek session around a hilly course, they will be able to fit in a number of different runs.

Two advantages can come from this type of hill training:

Race simulation. It is a good principle to rehearse in training the situations they are likely to meet in a race, such as trying to break open a gap by running hard over the top of a hill and keeping the pace going instead of easing up, as many runners do.

Downhill running. This is something that often causes jarring and strains. I do not advise doing repeated fast downhill runs, but I would suggest that they practice finding the most relaxed way of running downhill without strain.

Mixed hill running can also be used to improve running economy and boost an athlete's VO2 max. To do this identify a six or seven-mile undulating hilly course, commence the session jogging at a modest pace and gradually pick up the intensity as they move through the hills.

The key is not just to run up and down a few hills in their workout but to find a place where they can run up and down hills nearly constantly. If they cannot find a six or seven-mile course with constant undulations, use a shorter course and run back and forth on it. The key is not to let the flat ground running total more than 25% of the workout.

During most of the run, the athlete's heart rate should be close to 85% of maximum (85% of maximum heart rate matches up with 76% VO2 max). Do not let them blast up hills in the early part of the workout, this can stop them working though subsequent miles. The idea is to run constantly at a hard but not super-fast speed. They should not feel like they are racing but as though they are running just slightly slower than lactate threshold, even if the actual pace is even slower than that. Alternatively, they can use heart rate, which should be at around 85% of maximum during at least the last two-thirds of their run. A run of six to seven miles in this manner is enough for a great workout, but you can expand the session as much as you want with some additional hilly, but easier miles. If you plan in a mixed hill session once a week over 10 to 12-mile course, you will be amazed at how their running takes off.

Rough terrain

There are many advantages of combining hills and hard going e.g. sand. When the sand is soft, the athlete has to work a lot harder and increase their leg speed to keep themselves going. At the same time, there is a reduced risk of damaging their legs through impact injuries. In general, it has the same effect as hill running, but the distances can be reduced because of the difficulty.

Other methods of building leg strength are running in boots, running through snow or running with a pack on your back. Remember, the tougher the session the more carefully it must be integrated into the overall training plan.

Planning in the hill training

Once an athlete is fit enough to train, hill running can form a regular part of the pre-competition build-up. To avoid monotony, a 12-week 'strength' program, based on a 14-day cycle, will provide the right build-up to a period of racing. Within the 14-day cycle, you would include one session of long hills, two of medium hills, plus a session of hilly fartlek. The harder and longer the hill session, the easier the training must be the next day until the athlete's body has learnt to cope. As the competition approaches, you should drop the hills to once a week, making the other days more race-specific sessions.

The middle-distance runner might drop the long hills, but keep the medium ones going until he/she starts the track training - even then, hills can be done once every two weeks to maintain strength. The runner who is trying to increase finishing speed might well want to keep the short hills going right through the early part of the track season. However, there must come a time when the main work becomes race-specific and will be done on flat ground.

There is one situation where a hilly course can be used in the track or road racing season, and that is in the time trials or tempo runs in the last couple of weeks before a major event. You may want to do something to see how fit your athlete is and to test out their ability to push themselves. For a middle-distance running, a grassy hill or a sand-dune course of, say, half-a-mile, is just the thing for a pre-race test.

Running up a hill on a soft surface is much less damaging than doing, say, 1000m on a synthetic track, yet it gives all the pain and all the pleasure of a really hard work-out and that, after all, is what we are trying to achieve.

Downhill Running

Many runners develop muscle soreness after strenuous workouts or races. Clarkson et al. (1992) has shown that the muscle pain and loss of strength can be minimised if runners undertake regular sessions of eccentric training.

For runners, this would involve downhill running, since downhills put the muscles in the front of the leg under intense eccentric duress. A single downhill session (6 to 10 downhill runs over 300 metres) on a 300 to a 400-metre hill with an inclination of 10 to 15 degrees should provide protection against muscle pain and loss of strength for at least six weeks.

Now go out and find that hill.. Enjoy

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