When you see that (often dreaded) session on your training plan that reads, “HILLS”, it’s easy to slip into the habit of heading out and doing the same workout each week, just to get it ticked off. You might use the same hill and do the same number of reps, at the same effort, no matter what stage you’re at in your training, or even what race you’re training for. But if you do that, you won’t be getting the most from your workout. Here’s how to mix things up to ensure you’re making the most of those ups and downs.
One mistake people commonly make in hill sessions comes right at the beginning, says Rachel Sheldrake, a running coach with Mud and Miles (mudandmiles.co.uk). “People don’t tend to warm up specifically for a hill session,” she says. “If they do anything, it’s a token gesture that doesn’t warm up their hill-running muscles.” She advises warming up on your chosen hill – and, when you start the main reps of your session, measure your effort rather than running too hard in the first reps and then not being able to sustain the pace.
Your hill sessions need to change depending on the race you’re training for. That means you might have to say goodbye to your favourite gentle slope. “Wherever possible, people need to familiarise themselves with what the course is going to be like. If you’re doing a 5K and it’s got some short, sharp hills in it, your training needs to be different than for a marathon with long drags in it.”
Don’t forget to train for the lows as well as the highs, says coach Laura Fountain (lazygirlrunning.com). “One thing I think people don’t do is practise running downhill. If I’m doing a cross-country race, then I will pass people going up who then pass me going back down! Often the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that you get in a hilly race are caused by running downhill, because it’s a different kind of muscle contraction.”
A common problem with hill training is simply lack of hills. This is where you might need to think outside the box. “I’ve yet to go anywhere where there isn’t anything you can use for hill training,” says Sheldrake. “If you haven’t got a hill per se, you have to look for things like steps, built up banks, or a road bridge. I knew somebody who lived on the Suffolk coast and used a ramp that went from the beach to the sea wall – although it was short, they could still create a good workout using it and improve their uphill skills.”
You can also build a session around a hill that’s just beyond a convenient distance away. “I might do something like six miles with six hill reps halfway through,” says Fountain. “That’s good if you don’t live right next to a hill.”
If you really do have just one short hill to use, you can still mix it up, says coach Emily Griffiths (follow her on Twitter @EmpoweringFitn1). “When cross-training, try the following: run one hill rep (up and down), then do 20 squats; run another hill rep, do 20 lunges; run a final hill rep, do 20 burpees. Repeat this five times for a great way of varying training with minimal rest – it’s brilliant for those with time restrictions.”
Hill sessions are meant to be pretty hard – which means they’ll work better if your running surface is soft. “If you’re running on a relatively smooth surface, which could be a road or a nice grassy hill, you’ve not got as much resistance as if you were running on much rougher terrain,” says Sheldrake. “So if you want to develop your strength and balance, it’s harder work to do the session on a more uneven surface; you have to lift your legs and feet up higher and experiment with pace and cadence to adapt to the terrain.”
Running your hills off road is also good for your mental concentration and, if the ground is soft, you’re less likely to suffer from the impact of running back down again.
Taking on hills when it’s windy will also help you to get stronger – physically and mentally. “You’ll get a greater training benefit if you’re running into a headwind,” says Sheldrake. “I think it’s about embracing it and using it to your advantage; having the courage to turn around and run into the wind because that’s going to be harder.”
Although the individual sessions should always feel challenging, you should build up your effort slowly, as you would with any type of running, says Sheldrake. “You might start with a shallower slope and a lower number of reps and, when you can do that, rather than thinking, ‘I’ll run up a steeper slope and run for longer,’ just increase one factor at a time.”
If you live in a particularly lumpy area, this may mean that you need to put in some extra planning for every run you do, so that they don’t all become hill sets by default. “Have a clear focus for each session that you do, rather than just going out for a run,” says Sheldrake. “It may be that you can’t avoid hills entirely for your long run or speedwork, but it’s being clever about how you plan the route.”