How To Train For Running Hills On The Flat

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

13 September 2019


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Reading Time: 9 minutes

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 du 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.

Man Stood Atop Mountain

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 runner’s 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 specialised for running when doing this – rather than hitting the gym and throwing around a few dumbbells!

Female Runners Running Over Green Hills in the Peak District

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
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 (eg 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 based 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.

Man Running In Copper Canyon Mountains

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 five reps is a good target. Alternatively, set yourself a total workout time (eg 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% incline on a treadmill and the final five-minute run on 0% 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% grade, 10% 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% grade, and the hill strides at 15% grade, with the 30 seconds between hill strides walking at 15% grade.

Person's Feet Walking Up Stairs


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