How to Run Uphill Like A Boss

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

Uphill running. It’s definitely a love hate type of running. I’ve been there. Staring at an intimidating incline, already fatigued and wondering how I’m going to overcome it. There is definitely an element of grit and stubbornness that can help you up to the top through hill reps (more on that later) but there are some other tips I would recommend to helping you run uphill like a boss.


Strength

Yep, you guessed it. First step is to get stronger. Running uphill means our muscles have to work harder and produce more force than running on flat ground. This means they demand more oxygen per contraction to generate such force and keeping us moving forward. A stronger muscle will reduce this demand due to it requiring less effort to produce the force required to overcome the hill efficiently and make the effort feel ‘easier’ on the legs. So building a base level of maximal strength is recommended. Lots of single leg work such as split squats, calf raises, single leg deadlifts and weighted marching.

Power

Now we have built some solid foundations, we want to be able to express that strength a bit more specifically by being able to produce force quickly and do so with minimal contact time with the ground. This means we can be more efficient and apply less braking forces as we overcome gravity running up hill.


Plyometric training is a must. Being able to coordinate quick jumps and lands will not only make you a more efficient uphill runner, it will also improve agility, balance and coordination, skills fundamental to a good runner in general.


Horizontal jumps are a great starting point. We must first develop good jumping and landing before introducing max effort jumps back-to-back. The aim of plyometrics is to generate maximal force (jump as far as possible) with minimal contact time with the ground (spring into the next jump as quickly as possible). Check out the progressions below to build up to this.

So step 1 is to build hill strength and power in the gym. Step two is to look at hill climbing technique to get us ready for hill training sessions.


Technique

The best bit of technique advice I can give is increase cadence. This means take smaller steps to increase the speed of turnover and therefore steps per minute. These smaller steps make it easier to manage effort level and energy demands as well as keep on top of the rest of the technique points to follow.


The rest of the technique is very straightforward


Stay upright: Avoid ‘leaning into the hill’. Whilst there will be an element of forward lean due to moving on an incline, you shouldn’t make a conscious effort to lean forward as this typically involves bending at the waist and restricting breathing. Keep your chest up and focus your gaze out in front rather than at your feet.


Arm drive: Keep those arms moving! Arm drive coincides with leg drive (remember running is a movement of a leg drive alongside opposite arm drive). We’re not talking about resembling a sprinter, but there should be some for of deliberate arm movement forward and back (not across the body!).


Practice, Practice, Practice! Technique is a skill and skill takes time to learn and ingrain such patterns into the brain. Practice this on your training runs and longer hill rep sessions.


There’s a very simple training principle that has stood the test of time. Specificity. Simply put, if you want to get better at something, you must do that thing. We’ve tackled the general characteristics though strength and power, now we need to get specific and express that general foundation doing the thing we want to get better at. So unfortunately, there is no way around it…. You need to run uphill to get better at running uphill.


Hill Reps

There are a whole host of benefits to incorporating hill reps into your training other than just to get better at running uphill.


- Building run specific strength due to the increased demand to generate force to propel you up the hill specifically through challenging the hips. This strength work is great for those who are injury prone or hate the gym.

- A great way of developing strength and speed without as much injury risk as sprinting on the flat due to lower GRF and impact

- Helps develop sound technique by encouraging efficient arm drive, foot placement and posture to overcome the resistance of the hill

- The biggest benefit comes from neuromuscular adaptations by training the body to develop recruit more motor units (bundles of muscle fibres) primarily type 2. Recruiting more motor units gives us a bigger pool to draw upon in the later stages of racing helping to offset fatigue and a reduction in pace. These fibres tend not to be developed/recruited during training at lower intensities.


We must also understand that there are different types of hill reps that we can perform, each with specific adaptations associated with them. Your goals and training program will influence which ones you utilise. However, read on to understand the optimal times to use each type.


Hill Sprints: Notice the word sprint. This mean MAX effort! Max effort can only be sustained for a very short period of time. Hill sprints are 8-10 seconds of MAX effort runs up the steepest hill you can find. Follow each sprint with 2 mins of walking recovery or until you’re fully recovered. Max output is the focus, so take longer rest if required as each rep should be very similar in where you finish in that 8-10 seconds. Repeat this for a max of 10-12 repetitions but build up to this number gradually week to week. Start somewhere around 4-6 reps.


Hill sprints will help recruit and engage more muscle fibres, helping increase our power output and improve running economy. They are also a great run specific strength session.


Short reps: Now we’re stepping away from maximal effort and into developing our body’s ability to take on board and utilise oxygen or VO2Max. Shorter hill reps are great for offsetting fatigue and that ‘heavy’ feeling we get in the legs.


Short reps will typically be run for 45-90 seconds at anywhere between 3k-10k pace, so still hard work but maintainable throughout each rep. If you get progressively slower during the rep without any significant change to gradient, you’re going too fast. Ideal gradient would be 4-7%. Recovery is a slow jog back down the hill before turning around and repeating. Again, max out at 10-12 reps per workout. If you’re training for shorter distances such as 5k-10k, keep the duration of each rep at the lower end of the spectrum (45-60 secs) and the pace at the faster end (3k-5k pace). If training for longer distances, run for longer each rep (60-90 secs) at around 10k pace.


Long reps: these are great for building aerobic capacity on more specific terrain for your goal race. They typically last 2-4 mins with a jog down recovery (also great for practicing downhill skills). Due to the increased duration, keep the reps to 4-8 on a gradient similar to those you want to race on.


There you have it, 3 different TYPES of hill training. Obviously within each type there are many, many workouts you can perform, however don’t overcomplicate it. Keep the duration relatively specific to your training and at the pace that allows a relatively constant output.


When to perform each type

Hill sprints can be performed at any point in training due to the strength and power nature of them. As mentioned, before they are also great speed sessions for those more injury prone as there is less impact than running on flat ground.


Short reps are best performed during the mid to late stages of training as they develop VO2Max which adapts quickly but is tougher to maintain year-round. Think peaking phase.


Long reps are best utilised in the earlier or base stages of training due to the aerobic benefits they induce. Aerobic capacity takes longer to improve but is easier to maintain.


Now that you have developed strength, technique and hill performance with reps, you should see your performance on hills increase, whether that be in time or reduced effort to tackle them. However, I wanted to discuss a few other topics to round out your knowledge of hill performance.


Should you even run the hill?

There will be plenty of examples where for most of us, running uphill is less economical than walking or ‘power hiking’ up it. Running uphill will demand more energy and resources from the body than walking, that’s obvious. So, there is a point in which the speed you are running uphill is less economical than maintaining a similar speed but walking. If you are running slower than 18 mins/mile then walk. Simple as that. I’ve seen it plenty of times in my own races, where I’m power hiking next to a runner who is running. They’re burning more calories and wasting energy to move at the same pace as myself. If you’re running long distances on the trail/fell don’t be afraid to walk if you can’t maintain a decent running pace. You overall performance will be better for it.


Poles

Walking/running poles can be a great aid in climbing hills effectively, especially from an energy conservation perspective. They bring in the upper body to assist the legs in getting you to the top whether that be running or walking. Ensure you know how to use them and practice with them. Another reason to do upper body strength training!


Gradient of Hills

Whilst it’s not essential to be exact with gradients of your hill rep sessions, especially if you don’t have many options, you can use onthegomap.com to quickly plot your hill to get an average %gradient. Remember it will only be an average as most hills (especially off-road) aren’t uniform.


Understanding gradient and elevation gain/loss is really useful for those racing in events with more than 3000m elevation gain across the course. It would be worthwhile calculating total elevation change to give you an average change per mile.


Total elevation change in feet/total miles = average elevation change per mile


In the last 6-10 weeks of training, you can use this figure to train on routes with similar elevation change to train as specifically as possible to your race without being on the course itself. Obviously if you can train on the course, then you don’t need to worry about the above.


What If I Don’t Have Hills?

It can be tough for people in more urban areas to get any decent inclines to call them a hill. A treadmill would be the obvious first alternative which can easily allow you to choose gradient and speed. However, I know this also means a gym membership for most which may not be an option. If you fall into that category your focus should be on the other key characteristics that make a good runner.


- Develop a large aerobic base through increasing training volume and distance of your long run. Remember this training is at easy/zone 2 pace.


- Utilise the strength and power advice in step 1. A stronger runner is a faster runner. Simples.


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