There are times after a good hill workout that make you question your sanity? And I’ve gotten many a cross look when I suggest to a friend or client to add hills or stairs (hills and stairs are like twin brothers, hard to tell them apart but there ARE subtle differences) as a part of their training. In essence the prescription is pretty easy find the longest most ridiculous looking hill and sprint to the top of it, then rinse and repeat, until you cough up your spleen (I kid, I kid).
In all seriousness hill training is as bad as I’ve made it out to be, and utilized properly in your training it can be a great tool to improve your performance. The trick is to understand why you should implement hill training, and what you stand to gain from implementing it. In order to better understand the benefits of hill training a conversation of the bodies energy systems might help. I’ll start by covering the benefits gained from an energy system standpoint however, there are quite a few other benefits of hill training, not just more efficient energy systems.
At a basic level we have one of three energy systems that our body uses to fuel our activities, and it just so happens to not use any one system in isolation, but rather parts of every system based on the demands placed upon the body. The first system (phosphagen system for the geeks out there like me) is for high power output or very high intensity activities like sprinting or weightlifting and only kicks in for a short window of time, about 10 seconds. The second system (glycolysis again for the geeks) is for moderately intense activities like a half mile or one mile run, and typically lasts in the neighborhood of 1-3 minutes. Lastly, is our aerobic system (no super cool geek speak here) which powers you from 3 minutes until, well forever if you so desire, or at least until you decide to stop running or pass out, whichever comes first.
As I mentioned earlier these 3 systems are always turned on and running, but at different levels. However, we still need to train each of these systems to use them effectively, which is how we make our way back to hill training. You see you can train both the phosphagen and glycolytic systems using hills, with short duration sprints or hill runs. As I jokingly suggested in the beginning of this post it probably wouldn’t be a great idea to haphazardly pick a hill and just start running. And before I get into the specifics of adding hills to your training repertoire, it’s important to note why you might want to add hill training as a part of your training, or more to the point why you should use hills as a means to train part or all of these energy systems.
You see using hills as a mechanism to train the phosphagen system trains that extra gear that allows you to dig down deep and blow by that guy on mile 10, or to get around that guy in the tuxedo and top hat (seriously there is always that guy, be it tuxedo or full turkey suit, that always end up in front of you). You might also focus on training the glycolytic system that allows you to get that last little kick to slip in under your goal of a 2 hour half marathon (this is my story). As an added benefit hills also give you some variety rather than just logging the long and short runs, which face it at times can get a bit monotonous. Whichever, energy system you feel needs some additional work there are a few things to consider about hill training.
I’d start by selecting a hill that takes you anywhere from 15 seconds – 1 minute to get to the top of, and I usually like to use grassy hills, as it tends to give the body a bit of extra cushion more so than concrete (especially if most of your training is on concrete or roads). If you’ve never done hills before don’t just plan on busting out 10 or 20 hill sprints either, start with 2 or 3 at the beginning or end of a short run as they can cause some soreness, then gradually add repetitions each time you decide to do hill work. Hills can be great to incorporate once a week or maybe once every other week depending on your individual plan and training needs. Once you build your ability to do hill work over the course of a few weeks then maybe have a dedicated hill workout rather than tacking it to an existing training day.
As a last thought when considering hills as a part of your training, you don’t have to be limited to running hills outside. If you live in a colder temperature environment, or you’re training for the GO! St Louis Half Marathon or Marathon in April, a good portion of your training may be indoor. So if you prefer or are forced indoors the trusty old treadmill can be used as a great option for hill workouts too, provided it has the ability to incline, and hasn’t turned into your overpriced clothes hanger. – Thanks for reading, Ian.