When You Run Up a Hill


Within the group of young middle distance/XC runners I trained with long ago there was a maxim we applied to hill training: ‘When you run up the hill the wind is in your face. And when you run down the hill the wind is in your face.’ It was a bit of group humour injected to assuage the shared discomfort, some say pain, even torture, of doing hill intervals. The hill we used was a long, even slope up one side of a larger bowl shaped park. We ran anywhere from 50-200m on this one section, usually until our legs refused to lift us.

There were a few of us who tried to modify the sessions by having a bit of fun with variations. The first one we tried was running up the hill backwards; not as easy as we thought! With my Nordic skiing experience I taught others how to Bound up and across. Slalom leaps down led to Kangaroo leaps up. And so it went. I’m sure that from an onlookers distance it must have looked a bit silly (or worse). For us the shared competitive spirit banished notions of ridicule or bullying from the football team practicing in the adjacent fields.

Using variations was a very good idea. The problem with the idea also derived from our competitive nature. Every variant, every repetition and every start-middle-finish became a race. What we gained in chemistry and psychological edge we lost in movement proficiency. When training exercises become a competition technique reverts to its most familiar; complete with imbalances and compensations.

If we take away the notions of competitiveness and any so-called ‘toughness’ rationales that are sometimes used as a by-line for emotional abuse, is there value in using incline slopes for training? Excluding activities which have terrain built into them most ground-based sports are performed on flat, even surfaces. Could badminton and basketball players benefit? Figure skaters or cricket bowlers? Even runners?

There are of course return-on-investment reflections to consider. Time and energy need to be invested wisely in athlete development or development is limited. From a mechanical perspective do the changes encountered in moving up and down hills or slopes translate to mechanical proficiency on the flat? If the possibility is intriguing then it is worth investigating the potential benefits and matching them with sport and individual needs.

Most athletes use hill training as a disadvantage. With a poor understanding of how an incline alters the demands on timing, stability and tendon reflexes almost everyone will use excessive braking, energy depleting movements and faulty technique. Even benefits to psychological tolerances and volition are marred by excess physical and emotional tension that detracts from effective movement. The potential for growth is reduced to a small percentage of ever-diminishing chemistry efficiencies.

If I had to describe the potential benefits that hill training offer in a short phrase I would say that the gains and advantages centre on a stronger, resilient dynamic posture. For me dynamic posture is not about the core of the body or a snapshot slice of appearance; it is how we stitch movements together to create a smooth flow. From toe-to-tip dynamic posture training is about refining our movement skills towards optimal effectiveness. I was made aware of this several decades ago when watching some elite runners do hill training that included sprints and bounding. I knew what I looked like on a hill. Their ability to move smoothly up and down the inclines at speed was stunning. Further, they were able to reproduce that same graceful body control, from toe-to-tip, during performances on the track without any signs of depletion or eroded style.

How does an incline slope enhance dynamic posture? The short answer again is, by compelling you to deal with gravity. The secret (if there is one) to using inclines for training is in how you apply force during contact. From a sport skill perspective it makes no sense to slow down the contact times in order to exert force, and yet, most athletes will do exactly this as they try to muscle and grunt their way up. No, the answer is to learn to apply more force in the same time or less than you require during your sport or event moves.

Saying this, many athletes should probably avoid hill training until they have the ability to use an effective posture while on the flat. If the athlete is used to using 2-3 times body mass with a style full of compensations then 4-5 times body mass on a hill will simply overwhelm their mechanics and result in lurching, swaying strides with overactive arms and torso hyperextension. If the athlete avoids gravity on the flat by offloading then landings and takeoffs on a hill will be amplified versions of that style.

I do think that more sports and more events could take advantage of the potential benefits to be found on a hill. All those sports that require stop-start and scramble power. Any sports that use jumping or leaping (and landing). Every activity that regularly uses a short burst acceleration run. If you think beyond long timed intervals or steep climbs and look at the possibilities using landing-takeoff skills then the performance programming and injury prevention begin to shine through. The following few points capsulize how I think hill work can be an important tool to have in the training tool kit.

1.     Use Manageable Inclines and Distances: most athletes use steepness and/or distance as the challenge rather than their technique and will often translate session formats on the flat in a linear fashion. However, the load factors (stress-strain) encountered on a hill are exponential in nature rather than linear. Thus, it is better to use less incline and shorter distances so that good technique is preserved and foot-plant times are close to those used in performance. When style erodes due to depletion the session is finished in order to avoid resorting to compensatory moves just to complete a set or interval.

2.     Focus on an Effective Load-Unload Cycle: to get away from unwanted tension and wildly swinging arms and legs just to create movement you need to shift focus to what happens on the ground. Each foot placement has a distinct load-unload cycle that momentarily responds to contact with an explosive rebound and then releases tension in order to prepare for the next contact. Without this ability the athlete learns to stay tense in the air and cannot prepare properly for landings. The results are reduced ground responses, excess landing shock, energy depletion and higher injury risks. [Cue: feel each landing as a ‘pulse’]

3.     Explore Variations of Landings and Directions: most programmes use running as the prime activity due to traditional coaching folklore or a lack of imagination. There is no reason why slalom leaps, bounds, split stance, hops and skips cannot be performed on inclines. You can change directions, use patterns and shapes and investigate combinations. The results may not mimic sport needs directly but indirectly you are forming a resilient body that uses less energy to move effectively.

4.     Safety is not an Afterthought: with all the possibilities and creative options it is easy to forget that safety is both a present time and forecasting consideration. There are always increases in the forces applied to the ground when you use inclines. Tendon and muscle dynamics will lose about 30% of their ability to respond explosively within a short time. This means that hill training needs to be done when athletes are fresh, exercise selections and variations need to be simple to navigate, and formats need to look at potential collisions, slippage and footwear. Stopping or avoiding an activity is always preferable to dealing with injuries.

That young athlete that tried running up a hill backwards and who watched some of the best in the world move soooo smoothly and effortlessly is still within me today. When I watch athletes struggle with poor foot responses, inactive hips, pronated unstable landings and an inability to move with natural grace a part of me tries to picture them moving on a gently sloped hill. Up, down and across until the imbalances disappear and the smiles emerge.

J. Erik Little