Going uphill need not necessarily be a battle for runners

It’s time to welcome the hills into our running miles each week and not shy away from the discomfort

Runners at Bere Island parkrun in West Cork getting plenty of opportunity to practice hill training on their scenic running routes.

Runners at Bere Island parkrun in West Cork getting plenty of opportunity to practice hill training on their scenic running routes.

 

Do you enjoy running uphill? There are not too many runners I know who relish hilly routes. There are even some runners, who shall remain nameless, who would choose to run a much longer route than take a hilly shortcut. But running uphill doesn’t need to be that intimidating. With a little bit of practice, you can train your body, and indeed your mind, to embrace hills. Not every run needs to be on a hilly route, but adding hills to one training session per week helps builds strength, endurance and indeed running confidence.

Why are hills so tough?

When we run uphill we don’t have gravity on our side. We need something extra to help move our body upwards as well as forward. Many runners choose to use leg power to give that extra push. Driving the legs uphill by pushing off the toes and powering with long strides may get you to the top quickly but it is a sure way to make those leg muscles burn. Some runners also bend at the waist and look down when running uphill. This reduces their lung capacity making it harder to breathe well. But do hills have to be this tough?

How to approach a hill

The most efficient way to run up a hill is to do what you would do if you met a hill when on a bike. Move to a lower gear and use less leg power rather than more. It’s time to take smaller steps and give the legs a break. Try to avoid pushing off with your toes and instead relax the lower legs and avoid overworking these lower leg muscles. It might feel like you are just jogging on the spot rather than striding forwards but it is a very efficient way of moving. Instead of getting the legs to work hard, call on your upper body and your imagination to pull you uphill. Now is not necessarily the time for speed. Instead preserve your energy for the top of the hill where you can use gravity and your fresher body to run freely downhill.

Runners at Bere Island parkrun in West Cork getting plenty of opportunity to practice hill training on their scenic running routes.
Runners at Bere Island parkrun in West Cork getting plenty of opportunity to practice hill training on their scenic running routes.

Use your upper body

When I run uphill I visualise a string pulling me towards my destination from my chest. This stops me looking downwards and losing my good posture. Relaxing my legs, I put my focus on my arms keeping them in front of my body and driving my elbows upwards like I am doing a little upper cut with each upward arm swing. Sound complicated? There are videos of all of these Chi Running technique tips in our FREE online Get Running training plans and with a little practise you will really feel the difference.

Hills for speed

As you get more confident with hills you can experiment with different lengths and gradients and use them for speed as well as endurance. For many years, hill repeats have been part of the training schedule of every dedicated runner. Through varying the length of the hill and the volume of repeats there are endless opportunities to create new training sessions. Speed training on hills will strengthen the various muscle fibres of the legs as well as push the lungs to new limits. But if you are new to speed training on hills, keep it simple to start. Find a gradual incline which takes about 1 minute to climb. Once you are well warmed up, attempt to run faster up the hill and recover on the downhill. Repeat as many times as you feel right for you.

Getting over the hill

The best bit about a good incline is that it is generally followed by a lovely gradual downhill. With gravity on your side now is the time to enjoy the freedom and relaxation that running free can bring. When running downhill aim to relax your arms that have worked hard on the uphill and notice how your hips will naturally rotate as you let your upper body lead and your relaxed lower body follow. The downhill is truly worth the investment of the uphill. Use downhill as the perfect opportunity to shake out any tension held in your body. Once you hit the flat or indeed the next incline you will be fresh and ready for the challenge.

Choose your hill workout

You can use hills to help you run faster, stronger or more efficiently. Consider a gradual incline on a path/road that takes a few minutes to climb. Try running it fast and you have a lung busting workout. But try running it at a comfortable pace focusing on technique and you have a completely different, but equally valuable, workout. Whatever you do, run with confidence and look where you are going. Don’t wait until you meet a new hill on a race day to decide you need to get more comfortable with hills. It’s too late then. It’s time to welcome the hills into our running miles each week and not shy away from the discomfort. Let’s make that our challenge for the month ahead.

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie. Mary’s book Get Running published by Gill Books is out now.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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