You should be running hills.
Hill repeats are exactly what they sound like: running up a hill as fast as you can, recovering downhill with a walk or slow jog - then repeating it a few times with deliberation.
How to Run the Hills
Once you’re running at least 15-20 miles a week, you can safely assume you have the strength to incorporate a hill workout once a week or every other week. And once that’s the case, you want to start running hills - it’s a meaningful step towards becoming a faster, stronger, more well-rounded runner, and is less likely to induce injuries than purely doing speed workouts on a track when you want to see improvement.
How to pick your hill: personally, I like to change up the location, the length, and the grade for variety, but a few things stay constant. Pick one with no blind turns, and minimal traffic. It should be a hill that if you ran up it during a regular old run, you’d be able to continue running, but you would notice your legs and heart working extra hard.
Start with 1-2 miles of a warmup run, ending at your hill’s base. Your hill runs can start as low as 10 seconds of serious effort, then after a few weeks, work your way up to each hill effort being about 20-30 seconds of uphill work. You don’t have to necessarily increase beyond this - you can up your repetitions, or, find longer hills that increase the duration of each rep. Alternatively, you will get stronger and be able to increase the effort of each one - the workouts will naturally get harder as you get stronger, without having to change anything if you prefer.
When you’re a beginner to running and/or hills - don’t worry about speed - just put some effort into getting to the top of the hill. Focus on activating your core and truly lifting your legs up while propelling forward. You should have a slight lean of the hips, but be mostly upright.
Why You Should be Running Hills
Better for your joints
Running uphill means there’s less distance from your foot to the ground on every step - meaning less impact than if you were running just as hard on flat ground or worse, downhill. This reduced pressure lowers your sensitivity to injuries like shin splints, as well as general pressure on your joints. You literally can’t run uphill at your top speed (as you can on a track), and top speed is where a majority of injuries - minor an major - take place. So, hills add a layer of protection.
Climbing a hill improves your aerobic (endurance) as well as anaerobic capacity. In this way, they mimic the intensity of a track workout - in elevating your heart rate - without the same level of speed. Research has shown that runners who trained on hills have a much higher density of aerobic enzymes – the chemicals that allow our muscles to function at a high intensity for long periods without fatigue – in their quadriceps muscles than those who did all their running on flat terrain. Lifting our knees while accelerating leads to overall speed improvement when we later hit flat ground.
Additionally, there’s an entire conversation around skeletal muscle, which is responsible for moving our muscles when we run. It’s comprised of three different muscle fiber types, known as I, II, and III.
Type I, known as slow-twitch fibers, are the body’s primary method for less explosive, sustained movements, requiring less energy. Type IIx, known as fast-twitch muscle fibers, are responsible for fast, explosive movements like sprinting over bits of time. Type IIa, or intermediate fibers, are a blend between fast- and slow-twitch fibers. Everyone has a genetic predisposition to certain muscle fiber types, but we can change how they work in tandem and the percentage of each. Hills help recruit intermediate and fast twitch muscle fibers, teaching them to interact more efficiently together and reducing activation of unnecessary fibers. It also improves our neuromuscular coordination — how fast the brain can send signals to the muscles to fire, aka your efficiency.
Improve your running economy and strength
Lift all you want in the gym, but doing strength training while running will make you the best runner, and hills are just that. Hill sessions force the muscles in our hips, legs, ankles and feet to contract with the added effort of overcoming gravity. This ultimately develops us into more powerful runners. It’s kind of like a bodyweight squat vs a weighted squat. You’ll strengthen your glutes, quads, calves, and hips more with added resistance.
You’ll make your heart stronger, too, by training it to pump more blood with each stroke - this higher amount of oxygen delivered to your muscles and organs and has a great impact on your stamina.
Improved running form and economy
Hitting the hills is a straightforward way to strengthen your muscular system, which in turn improves your running form. Running uphill requires you to lift your knees higher than you would on flat ground, which leads to a higher turnover (how fast you’re striding) and more power. When going uphill, your knees pump high, just as they should, you run on the forefoot and mid foot as opposed to slamming your heels down first, your stride rate jumps up, and you are forced to control your breathing more intentionally. You can’t really slouch over and flail around when you’re running uphill. Your form will improve. In fact, PTs should really encourage runners with imbalances to hit. the. hills.
What’s running economy? It’s basically how much energy is required for you to maintain a certain pace. An uphill slope raises the energy demands of maintaining a given pace. Improving it means going harder, faster, and longer with less.
In conclusion - pick a day this week, find a hill in your neighborhood, and do your first hill workout. Warm up for 10-25 minutes, and do 3-8 hill repeats - hard up, slow down (be light on your feet on the way down), then cool down with an easy jog for 10-25 minutes.