How to train for run­ning hills on the flat

Wheth­er you are pre­par­ing for a race in the moun­tains or not, one of the easi­est and fast­est ways to improve run­ning form is to include reg­u­lar hill work in your train­ing. Run­ning against an incline forces muscles to work harder and as you grow stronger, your stride becomes more effi­cient, thereby improv­ing speed. Research backs this up; a 2015 study pub­lished in the Inter­na­tion­al Journ­al of Sports Physiology and Per­form­ance com­pared a group of run­ners who per­formed six weeks of high-intens­ity uphill run­ning inter­vals to a con­trol group. Not only did the uphill run­ners improve their run­ning eco­nomy, they were also, on aver­age, two per cent faster at the end.

For those pre­par­ing for a moun­tain race, such as Ultra Trail Mont Blanc or Ultra X Mex­ico, where com­pet­it­ors are required to climb up to and bey­ond the height of Everest in one go, it is not just import­ant but neces­sary to adapt train­ing plans to pre­pare spe­cific­ally for the phys­ic­al require­ments of climb­ing and des­cend­ing.

Liv­ing on flat lands can be con­sidered an obstacle to this, how­ever it need­n’t be. You don’t need to live in the moun­tains to become a strong climber and as little as one hill ses­sion a week can make a huge dif­fer­ence.

The Basics

Its not just the uphill

While ascents require more effort from your heart and lungs, the down­hill run­ning involved in moun­tain races poses its own unique chal­lenges. Des­cend­ing might feel easy aer­obic­ally, but your legs don’t get a break. Down­hill run­ning requires your muscles to work in a slightly dif­fer­ent way to run­ning uphill as each step trig­gers muscle-dam­aging eccent­ric con­trac­tions in the quads and lower legs, which can be dev­ast­at­ing in the final third of a race.

Prac­ti­cing down­hill run­ning helps pre­pare your body for this and is an import­ant (and often for­got­ten) aspect of hill train­ing- what goes up must come down and all that. Down­hill run­ning is a real skill that needs prac­ti­cing, and can give you a sig­ni­fic­ant advant­age over the com­pet­i­tion in a race.

Train easy (mostly)

While the body adapts to very hard efforts in mod­er­a­tion, most efforts should be sus­tain­able and repeat­able. Short hard efforts are great for VO2 max, aer­obic capa­city and speed but dur­ing an ultra mara­thon high effort levels are unsus­tain­able and the value will be in the long, slow, time on feet ses­sions which pre­pare you for work­ing at a low intens­ity for a pro­longed peri­od of time. Often, a run­ners train­ing plan is based on just that (run­ning) how­ever when doing some­thing like UTMB, more than 50% of the race will be spent hik­ing, so it’s import­ant to incor­por­ate this into a train­ing plan. Those who com­mit to this will find that it’s a lot easi­er to make up one minute of hik­ing time dur­ing a long race than one minute of run­ning!

Strength train­ing

Run­ning is not always neces­sary to get bet­ter at hills. Hav­ing a load of miles under your belt isn’t guar­an­teed to make you faster on race day, espe­cially for a moun­tain race. Rather, it is hav­ing the strength and mobil­ity in the right places which allow you to suc­ceed. Func­tion­al leg strength can have a huge influ­ence on per­form­ance. It’s recom­men­ded to try and fit in two strength ses­sions a week to com­ple­ment your run­ning. This also will aid injury pre­ven­tion. There are a load of recom­men­ded exer­cises and move­ments but the key is to keep the move­ments func­tion­al and spe­cial­ized for run­ning when doing this- rather than hit­ting the gym and throw­ing around a few dumb­bells!

It’s all about tech­nique

1) Work on your uphill eco­nomy The amount of energy it takes to run a giv­en pace is the key to devel­op­ing your run­ning regard­less of ter­rain. Even at 20% incline, most move­ment is hori­zont­al, so flat run­ning eco­nomy is still the most import­ant vari­able. That’s why we see fast road run­ners often smash­ing it in the moun­tains without too much adapt­ive train­ing. To improve flat run­ning eco­nomy look to incor­por­ate short, fast strides into easy runs once a week, that provide a go-fast stim­u­lus for neur­omus­cu­lar and bio­mech­an­ic­al adapt­a­tions.

Ver­tic­al velo­city still plays a big role, so you can work on the ver­tic­al side of things by doing some hill inter­vals of between 30 seconds and three minutes, focus­ing on main­tain­ing good form while run­ning fast (check out the below sug­ges­ted ses­sions if you need fur­ther point­ers).

2) Lean for­ward Hills are tough. The reas­on why? Grav­ity! As such, lean for­ward with your centre of grav­ity tilted for­ward from the ankle. On the down­hills slowly fall for­ward, let­ting each foot­fall stop you. A little men­tal trick is to try to mim­ic the grade you are run­ning (e.g. if you are run­ning a gradu­al three-per­cent grade, lean for­ward three per­cent. It’s just sci­ence, really.

3) Check your stride length Use short, relaxed strides. Climb­ing is strenu­ous because of the con­stant ten­sion required to main­tain power out­put while fight­ing grav­ity. To reduce exer­tion, try to stay totally relaxed, tak­ing short, gentle strides and keep­ing your arms loose.

4) Keep your eyes down Apo­lo­gies, but even when you are run­ning across the sky­line of the French Alps, eyes on the floor please! Bal­ance is vital in sus­tain­ing run­ning form and get­ting your pos­i­tion­ing right, par­tic­u­larly when fly­ing down hills, will help with effi­ciency and form.

Leave the watch behind- run/hike on effort Every­one, and we mean every­one, is slow on hills. Train­ing should get you com­fort­able being slower, focus­ing on keep­ing a steady effort over the course of climbs and des­cents. For many moun­tain events, there will be a good amount of power hik­ing, which needs to be added to train­ing. Whatever you do, don’t let your effort level mir­ror the elev­a­tion pro­file. Go slower on ups and faster on the downs.

Also, don’t worry too much about the vert you’ve achieved in train­ing, Climb­ing is slow. So if you climb too much, you’ll get slower (and have pre­cious little time to do much else!) If you run slow uphillss all the time, there’s a risk your run­ning eco­nomy will suf­fer. Of course, its okay to run hills, but keep some ses­sions on faster ter­rain, and don’t worry if you can­’t get into the moun­tains all the time.

Prac­tice move­ment pat­terns on a tread­mill- but not only a tread­mill! While you don’t need to do tonnes of climb­ing to be a great climber, your body does need to adapt to the unique bio­mech­an­ic­al demands of climb­ing, like the for­ward lean and the calf muscle stress. If you live in the hills that’s great- good for you. If you don’t, then jump­ing on a tread­mill and push­ing up the incline is great. HOWEVER, remem­ber a tread­mill assumes a com­pletely flat uphill grade- in real­ity the move­ments in a moun­tain race are more akin to that on a step­per machine- so switch this in and out with that tread­mill.

Ses­sions to get bet­ter at hills

Below we’ve detailed some of the ses­sions we would recom­mend for improv­ing hill climb­ing abil­ity, regard­less of your loc­a­tion. Incor­por­ate these into your train­ing and you will be climb­ing like a moun­tain goat in no time at all.

Simple Hills

Why: An intro­duc­tion to hill train­ing for new run­ners- bread and but­ter.

How: Three-minute hills are a sweet spot where most can sus­tain high efforts. Find a sec­tion with a steady incline, push hard for three minutes. Rest for five to 10 seconds, then turn around and run back to the start- this is the recov­ery time. Repeat. Aim­ing for 5 reps is a good tar­get. Altern­at­ively, set your­self a total workout time (e.g. 30 mins) and see if you can improve the num­ber of reps over the weeks.

No hills: This is a good one for some stairs. Push hard for three minutes up with equally easy recov­ery.

Walk it out

Why: In moun­tain run­ning, hik­ing is one of the most import­ant skills. It’s essen­tial to train hik­ing spe­cific­ally but it’s also use­ful to train trans­ition­ing from hik­ing to run­ning and back again, which can burn excess energy if you aren’t used to it. This ses­sion gives you a good feel for the trans­ition, let­ting you prac­tice effi­cient form whilst also giv­ing you a good workout.

How: 10–20 x 1 minute mod­er­ately hard running/1 minute fast hik­ing, fin­ish­ing with an all-out 5 minute run (if hard­core). Run at approx­im­ately the pace you could sus­tain for 30 mins. After a minute, hike as fast as you can for the next minute. Repeat that up a long hill. For the extreme ver­sion, end it with five minutes of a truly hard effort, on whatever ter­rain sounds most fun, uphill or down­hill.

No hills: Do the 1/1 workout at 15-per­cent incline on a tread­mill and the final five-minute run on 0‑percent grade. Even if you live in the hills this ses­sion might be one for a tread­mill.

Uphill steady

Why: Research has found that most run­ners try to run too fast uphill. It’s best to main­tain an even effort rather than try to sus­tain your flat pace. This workout will help you to lock into a sus­tain­able pace as well as help you get com­fort­able run­ning at an incline.

How: Find an ascent that takes 10 mins or longer to cov­er. Mim­ic the effort you’d expend on a flat run, no mat­ter how slow it feels. Listen to your breath­ing: if it gets notice­ably heav­ier, ease up. Altern­at­ively. use a heart-rate mon­it­or to mod­er­ate your effort level. Repeat. You could also find an undu­lat­ing route and treat it as a steady ses­sion where you look to main­tain a con­sist­ent effort (not speed!) through­out.

No hills: On a tread­mill, altern­ate between 15-per­cent grade, 10-per­cent grade, and flat/down every five minutes for an hour.

Short hill sprints

Why: Increases leg strength, improves form and builds speed. Best suited to run­ners with some exper­i­ence.

How: After a good warm-up, explode up a steep hill for eight to 12 seconds. Give it everything and then give your­self a good recov­ery time (1–2 mins) to walk back and catch your breath. 5–10 reps recom­men­ded. No hills: Find a good flight of steps. Ham­mer it up for eight to 12 seconds. Repeat.

Up and down

Why: Prac­tising down­hills pre­pares your body to handle the eccent­ric muscle con­trac­tions that down­hill run­ning demands from the quads, improv­ing your per­form­ance on hilly courses, as well as improv­ing form which is how you can ensure that grav­ity is on your side when going up and down! In addi­tion, get­ting used to easy move­ment uphill as part of recov­ery is a great way to pre­pare the body for long stints of climb­ing at low intens­ity in your ultras.

How: Find a stretch sim­il­ar to that for the simple hills ses­sion (a gradu­al incline which will take around 3 mins to climb). Hard up, then ham­mer it down, then do the same again slowly (can be at a walk) to recov­er. Repeat.

No hills: If you really can­’t find even a little incline loc­ally to do this ses­sion, steps will pro­duce sim­il­ar bene­fits. 3 mins up and then lean into the decline as you push hard. Repeat slowly to recov­er. Then repeat.

Pain Train- Not for begin­ners Why: You are a stick­ler for pain and like a chal­lenge. This workout fully engages the aer­obic sys­tem, build­ing up some resid­ual fatigue and deplet­ing energy stores before a big final push. Please exer­cise cau­tion with this one. Doing workouts on fatigued legs should not be incor­por­ated too often with­in a train­ing cycle due to the risk of injury, how­ever, it’s help­ful to build men­tal tough­ness and endur­ance, plus there may be neur­omus­cu­lar bene­fits that are import­ant for race day. How: 90-plus-minutes easy, undu­lat­ing run with a 20-minute hard run near the end, 1‑minute easy recov­ery, fol­lowed by 8 x 30-second hills hard with 30 seconds easy between each. Near the end of a longer run up to 20 miles, do a strong 20-minute tempo on undu­lat­ing ter­rain, start­ing around an effort you could sus­tain for one hour before pro­gress­ing to a hard fin­ish in the second half. After tak­ing a minute or two to recov­er, do 8 x 30-second hill strides hard with equal easy run­ning recov­ery. The steep­er the ter­rain, the bet­ter, as long as you can run with good form. No hills: Fin­ish a long run at the gym, doing the tempo on the tread­mill at 10-per­cent grade, and the hill strides at 15-per­cent grade, with the 30 seconds between hill strides walk­ing at 15-per­cent grade.

If you enjoyed this art­icle you should join us on Wed­nes­day 18th Sept in Bank, where we are host­ing an event spe­cific­ally for those pre­par­ing for races at Alti­tude.

You can register below.