American marathon great Frank Shorter once said that, “hill running is speedwork in disguise.” With that in mind, Shorter set up training camp in Taos, New Mexico, where he focused on training in the hills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
You don’t have to be an elite athlete like Shorter to gain fitness from hills—hill running can serve as an integral part of any run training program. Running guru Jeff Galloway (who competed in the 1972 Olympics with Shorter) is a big fan of hill training.
“Hill training strengthens the legs for running better than any other activity I know,” Galloway says in his book Marathon. “At the same time, it can help you improve leg speed and enhance your ability to run hills in races. The hill training segments provide a gentle introduction to faster running while improving your capacity to perform speedwork later in the program.”
Galloway goes on to explain that hills provide resistance to the main running groups, primarily the calf muscles, and that the regular, gentle uphill stress encourages these muscles to develop strength specifically for running.
“Hill training strengthens as it coordinates the dynamic action of running power you need,” Galloway says. “Runners of all ability levels can use hills to develop the lower leg strength to support body weight farther forward on their feet. As the foot rolls forward in the running motion, greater support strength will allow the ankle to be loaded like a strong spring. The result is a more dynamic lift-off of the foot as the ankle releases its mechanical energy.”
The overall effect is greater efficiency, which translates to—you guessed it—speed.
So what is the best way to get hill training in? An obvious solution would be to incorporate a hilly course of say, eight to 10 miles into your weekly training and run it at a strong pace. While this is good, more specific hill training will yield more direct benefits.
After a one or two mile warm up, pick a hill of 200-800 meters long. You don’t want it to be too steep, as this will slow you down too much and be counterproductive. A gentle grade should suffice.
- Don’t charge the hill
- Run a smooth continuous effort
- Run up, and jog or walk down
- Start with two to three hill repeats, and add one or two hills a week, building up to 10-12 repeats
Galloway advises runners to maintain upright body posture, and keep their feet low to the ground while doing hill repeats. He recommends a short stride with a quick turnover, while maintaining a sooth rhythm. Maintain your turnover rate by shortening your stride on steeper inclines.
Hill running really works—there’s no question. Just ask Shorter. After his Taos training, he won Marathon gold in the 1972 Olympics in Munich.