Running up hills requires increased force. It forces the knees to lift higher, which governs stride speed and length. It also works all three types of muscle fibers, increasing power. Slow-twitch (Type I) muscle fibers produce the least amount of force, but they work aerobically and take a long time to fatigue. They are enlisted for endurance activities. Intermediate fat-twitch (Type IIa) muscle fibers produce more force than slow-twitch and are utilized with middle-distance running. Fast-twitch (Type IIx) fibers produce the most force and work anaerobically. They are used only for short bursts.
I started thinking, there must be a ‘best’ way to run hills. Long hill runs improve endurance. Long hill reps improve strength. Short hill reps improved speed. When we run, we call on muscle fibers in a step manner. We use slow-twitch fibers first, add intermediate fibers as required force increases, and add fast-twitch fibers when our force requirement is the greatest, such as when sprinting up a steep hill. Below are some hill workouts and tips for running hills.
- Long hill runs. This run will engage your slow-twitch fibers that require lower-intensity, long-duration workloads to achieve maximum endurance. Begin by including a half-mile to a mile of moderately steep uphill into your long run every second or third week. As your fitness improves, increase the total volume of uphill running to 2-3 miles. The effort level should be RPE of 1-2 (comfortable). Running too hard will decrease your volume of hill work and increase your recovery time.
- Long hill repeats. This run forces you to climb the muscle fiber steps. The power required to fun fast up a long hill (6-7% grade) recruits your intermediate fibers, as well as all available slow-twitch fibers. A typical weekly progression of long hill repeat sessions: 4-8 x 30 seconds, 2-3 minute rest; 4-8 x 60 seconds, 3-4 minute rest; 4-6 x 90 seconds, 4-5 minute rest. As far as pace, try to finish every repetition workout with just enough reserve energy to run one or two more repeats if the workout called for it.
- Short hill repeats. This run strengthens all three types of muscle fibers and reduces neuromuscular inhibition. Sprinting up a hill at 90-95% maximum effort recruits the fullest range of fibers possible. Start with four or five reps of 5-10 seconds up a steep hill, then build up over a few sessions to 8-12 reps. For recovery, walk back down hill and wait until 2-3 minutes.
- Hill bounding. This run develops strength and stride efficiency. Use a moderate grade (6-7%). Vertical bounding is driving off the toes of the plant foot, lifting the opposite knee high, and emphasize vertical lift. Land on the opposite foot and repeat. Horizontal bounding is the same as vertical but you emphasize the length of the bound, the height. Skip bounding is the same as vertical except that you land on the same foot that initiated the bound. Then take a short step forward onto your opposite foot, spring vertically, land on the foot, and the repeat. Bound for 50-70 yards, the job back down the hill and repeat. One or two reps of each drill is enough.
- Downhill strides. This run builds quadriceps. This method recruits fewer muscle fibers, increasing the force required from those that are activated. The increased force causes more damage to the recruited fibers. These two things lead to stronger quadriceps, better knee lift and a resistance to future quad soreness. Start with 4-5 repeats of 60-100 yards on a moderately steep grade. Run at 85% max pace and allow 2-3 minutes for recovery between reps. Build up to 6-8 reps at 90-95% effort. Try to do this workout on grass or trails.
- Be mentally ready. Don’t let hills intimidate you.
- Slow your pace.
- Watch your posture. Keep your body as upright as possible.
- Control stride length. Shorten your stride when going up and down hills.
- Keep the down hill rhythm.