How Hill Running Changes Your Fitness

The perfect tips for becoming a pro at hill running

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Often we shy away from things that make running harder than it already is. Maybe it’s the wind or the weather, but most often it’s the terrain. We would rather run a flat, easy route than one that’s filled with hills. But learning to “embrace” the hill can actually yield huge benefits when it comes to your running.

Hill running has been used as part of a workout regimen for athletes, the military and general fitness enthusiasts for centuries. The simplicity of hill running (where you literally run up a hill), as well as its effectiveness, have stood the test of time. However, what has made it such a popular training exercise? What benefits do you stand to gain from including it in your workout regimen?

The Benefits of Hill Running

Hill Running Benefit #1: Building Strength While Running

Some say cardio and strength training are mutually exclusive. However, we very much beg to differ when it comes to hill running. Running inclines is a fantastic form of resistance training. Building muscle in your calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. By hill running you strengthen those areas more than running on flat surfaces.

Also, you’ll strengthen your hip flexors and Achilles’ tendons. So, if you hate doing circuit training or strength training, hills are a smart way to build those muscles through running. Allowing you to ditch that weight routine if you want to. 

Hill Running Benefit #2: Becoming A Faster, More Agile Runner

A hill or mountain is one of the meanest (and best) training machines out there. As it challenges many areas of your body at the same time. For example, the muscles you use to run hills are the same muscles use for sprinting. So the strength you build running inclines will help to improve your overall running speed. 

How can you get the most out of your hill run? Use a HIIT format for your next run. It’s easy. All you have to do is use a hill distance of 100 to 200 meters. This may mean cutting your uphill run short on longer hills. You run up the hill as fast as you can and then recover by jogging or walking down.

A hill workout is also a great way to mix up your treadmill routine. To do hill repeats on a treadmill, simply increase the incline for one to three minutes, then jog to recover.

Hill Running Benefit #3: Torching Calories & Easily Amping Up Intensity 

While runners can add intensity by speeding up, hills offer a way to do it at the same speed. You will feel your heart rate, respiration, and probably your perspiration, go up when you start uphill. While you might not often achieve a speed where you are near your limit, you may be able to do so more easily with a hill.

An added benefit to increasing intensity is that you also burn more calories when running uphill. The actual number of additional calories will depend on the grade of the incline and a few other factors, but you can expect to increase your fat burning potential by adding hills to your workout regime.

Hill Running Benefit #4: Preventing Injuries & Strengthening Muscles

Remember when we said that hill running strengthens muscles like your Achilles’ heel and hip flexors? Well, not only does it add strength to those muscles, but it also protects them from injury. As you strengthen your leg muscles through hill running, you also may reduce the risk of suffering from ​running-related injuries. You will have trained your muscles to perform at different levels of incline.

Running uphill forces you to engage the glute and hamstring muscles on the back of your legs. Running downhill requires stability through the knee joint which engages the lateral and medial quadriceps muscles. Then, when those muscles are challenged in future runs (or during other athletic events), they are more ready to meet the new physical barrier.

How To Crush Your Next Hill Run

Hill running can be a daunting task. A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that hill training is tough for even the fittest of athletes.

The study examined what is called “anticipatory pace conservation”. A protective mechanism within the brain that tells your body to hold back if you know that there is a strenuous task up ahead, like a massive hill. In the study, a group of trained runners did a 3,000-meter treadmill drill. Half of them were told that the last 800 meters would be hilly. For the other group, the steep incline came as a surprise. The results? The first group ran the easy part almost 14 seconds slower. That may not seem like a ton, but to runner’s PBR it can be a massive discount on your time. 

So how do you tackle such a scary run without psyching yourself out? It all starts with preparing and training your body the right way. Because a hill run is not just a regular run. It tests all segments of your physicality. Including agility, strength and above all your endurance.

Below we outline the best way to train for hill running. Also, we cover how you can get the best results from all your training on the trail. 

How To Have Perfect Hill Running Form 

Rule #1: Don’t Lean Forward

Most runners’ natural reaction when they start running up a hill is to lean into it. Usually by bending forward at the waist. This form is hard on your body and will also slow you down significantly. 

This is because it’s much harder to use your hip flexors correctly and bring your knees up. Meaning that leaning forward inhibits your ability to flex your hips. Which makes you drive your knee drive up your knee during the “swing” phase of your gait. You can test it out yourself. Try lifting your knee towards your chest while standing straight up. You probably felt your hips engage. Now try it again when with your torso leaned over. Not so easy, is it? 

Also, leaning forward zaps your speed during hill running. To push off the ground and take advantage of the additional energy stored in your calf muscles, you need to fully extend your leg straight behind you. This is done most effectively when your upper body is not slanted forward. Standing tall while hill running allows your glutes to extend your leg behind you. 

The biggest tip is to think about “standing tall” when you are running uphill. It’s a safe way to ensure you are utilizing your hips because you are unlikely to be leaning too far back. 

Rule #2: Eyes Up

When you’re in the middle of a grueling hill run, it’s easy to drop your head. However, this is one of the last things you want to do for a fast trail run. Dropping your head restricts how much oxygen you can take in. Also, it will cause you to slouch making it double the trouble for you and your running form. 

The key is to keep your head and eyes up, looking about 30 meters in front of you. With your head held high, don’t forget about the power in your arms too! Drive your arms straight forward and back and use them like pistons. Your arms should form a 90-degree angle at the elbow. Swinging straight back and forth, not across your body.

Rule #3: Find Power In Your Ankles 

While you are barreling up mountains, your ankles might be the last place you would think to find power. However, if used properly, they can be your secret weapon to an amazing run. Think of yourself exploding off your ankle and using that last bit of power to propel you up the hill with minimal energy expenditure. The technical term is plantar flexion. Essentially the goal is to point your toes towards the ground from the ankle and then drive off the ground. 

The Hill Running Verdict

Long story short, hill running is a fantastic way to unlock your running potential. Whether you are looking to shake up your regular running routine or you are hoping to smash through that PBR, hill runs are a great way to get there.

Have you implemented hilling running into your routine? What tricks do you use to make it easier? Sound off in the comments to let us know all your hill training tips!

Download Our FREE
Spartan Race Training Plan
Our comprehensive training plan provides you with 30-days of exercises right up to race day!
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Lesley George

Lesley is a content writer and community manager at Shape.
Download Our FREE
Spartan Race Training Plan
Our comprehensive training plan provides you with 30-days of exercises right up to race day!
Download e-Book