Running hills is an important part of your training, because it strengthens your legs and ankles, increases your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and increases your tolerance for lactic acid. When you run hills, you're not only moving your body laterally, as you do on level ground, but you're moving your body against gravity. Thus, hills offer resistance training that helps strengthen your body.
Four Phases to Hill Running
There are four phases to running hills.
- You can't run the hill and you walk it
- You run the hill at a very slow jog
- You run the hill at a faster pace but slower than your normal pace
- You run the hill at your normal pace
If you're not used to hills and you think you'll never get out of phase 1, don't get discouraged. Just be patient and let your body work itself through the four phases. The time will come when you'll be in phase 4, and you'll run the hills without even thinking about them as hills.
Hills, Stairs, Use What You Have
Many routes used for LSD have hills, and you can use those hills for hill training. You can increase your pace up or down the hill as a fartlek and then continue your run at your LSD pace, or you can stop and run intervals up and down the hill for a few minutes. If you don't have hills in your area, try running stairs or using a tread mill with a steeper incline.
Don't Overdo a Good Thing
Hills put high stress on your body. In addition to the stress of moving your body horizontally, you are increasing the stress due to overcoming gravity to move your body vertically, and the effect on your body is like you're running much faster. Because of this higher stress, don't do heavy hill training more often than once a week. During the rest of the week when you encounter hills during your run, consider the hills as LSD training and run them at a slower pace and then continue your run.
You Look Different When You Run Hills
When running hills, you'll use a different running form than you do on level ground. Take smaller steps. Pump your arms and raise your knees higher to get more energy into your running. Some web sites recommend that you lean backwards when going up hills (I think the goal is to be perpendicular to the road), but I've found that the opposite works best for me. I lean into the hill such that my body remains vertical (I do the same when I'm hiking), and I run more on my toes while going up a steep hill. I take deeper breaths to get more oxygen. When I run down hills, you can lean forward a a little bit to get more speed. This time, gravity is your friend, and you can get increased speed with less effort. However, be careful, because if you lean too far forward, you'll lose your balance and fall. When going downhill, I take longer strides to accommodate the faster pace, but I'm careful to not over stride. I make sure my fore-foot hits the ground (not my heel) under my body. Unless you've trained for running with longer strides, be careful because using a longer than normal stride increases the risk of shin splints or other injury.
That Big Hill is my Buddy
Hills can be your friend, so welcome opportunities to master them! There was a large hill near my home in Massachusetts. The elevation change to the top was about 400 feet, and the distance to the top was about 1/4 mile. When I first moved there, I had to walk up the hill. However, after a while, I found I could jog up the hill. Then I found I could run up the hill at my normal pace. And then I found that I was going up the hill and not even thinking about it. That hill had become my friend. I was glad for all of the hill training I received in hilly Massachusetts, because when I ran the Foxboro Marathon, the route was a loop that included a big hill like the one near my home, and to complete the marathon I had to traverse that hill three times. Here is a picture of the hill near my home, taken from Google Earth.