It's An Uphill Battle

Unless you are running exclusively on the track, it’s likely that your runs are not completely flat. Many of us, as we started out probably avoided hills. We gradually grew to accept them, but maybe still struggle with them on race day.

This is especially problematic for runners newly embarking on races longer than 13.1 miles and runners who are new to trail running. As longer distances and more challenging terrain progress, one thing in for sure: the hills are not going anywhere.

If there is one concept that needs reiteration with many runners I meet: running hills is not the same as running flats. Successful execution of this necessary evil requires proficiency in a couple of key areas, and runners who are lacking are likely to break down quickly.

My name is Allan Buccola. I’m a running specialist physical therapist in Greensboro, NC, and owner of Impetus PT. In this post I’ll discuss some key components needed to master the art of running hills and how they will make you a stronger runner overall.

So what does it take to run hills well?

Hip Flexion

Running uphill requires the knees to come higher with each stride: this is called hip flexion. Because the forces are greater and the cadence faster, the legs end up moving more quickly. This requires greater hip flexion strength. Being able to do this well is an important component of almost any race course, especially over longer distances.

Runners who frequently run at slower paces, with a high cadence, or too often at the same pace may struggle. Regular inclusion of drills on hills can be a great way to improve your hip flexion strength. This in turn may put some additional stress on the hamstrings or groin, so ease your way into any new workouts if you are not accustomed to doing them regularly.

Higher Cadence or Turnover

For efficiency sake, the sudden encounter of a steep hill means most runners will need to shorten their stride to maintain a reasonable level of energy output per stride. One way of doing this is to increase cadence or footstep turnover. This will allow shorter, more brisk strides which helps conserve energy.

Running with a higher cadence on a hill also makes it easier to maintain an upright, neutral trunk. Many runners easily over-stride on steep hills, and in the setting of fatigue, lose control of the pelvis and overload the hamstrings. Keeping your trunk erect and upright helps to avoid unnecessary fatigue and injury. 

Forefoot Strike/Calf Strength

Even for the most religious of heel striking runners, a steep incline will make it near impossible to do anything other than utilize a forefoot strike. If hills intervals are not a part of the regular training plan, a moderate to severe deficit in ankle strength can become common

For a short time, much of this additional loading stress on the ankle can be absorbed into the Achilles’ tendon and/or the fascia of the calves, but overtime, this continued insult may lead to Achilles’ tendinopathy or calf strain. Novice runners should be able to perform a minimum of 25-30 single leg calf raises before fatigue.

Core Strength

When powering up a sharp incline, at an 80-95% effort for a workout, limb velocity increases, hip flexion range begins to max out, and stroke power comes close to maximization. If a runner is able to do all of these things well, the last thing required is a strong core to hold everything together.

In a single stride wherein one limb is moving into flexion at near maximal force and the other is pushing off the ground at near maximal force, the pelvis requires stability. While maintained in a mildly ached position, the sacrum and the pelvis create a bony-lock, allowing the body to take advantage of additional elastic recoil.

If control of the pelvis is lost, additional effort will be required, and some runners may even begin to have lower back pain or SI joint pain. For this reason, your core strengthening routine should always include some dynamic core stabilization activities. A simple overreliance on static core strengthening with exercises such as planking will not adequately develop strength throughout the full range of motion.

Reap the benefits

Don’t avoid the hills. The benefits of regularly practicing inclined running are numerous. Great force per stride will be developed. Targeting of unfamiliar joint ranges and often underutilized muscles will make any runner more diverse and fluent in the sport. The ability to obtain a hard effort workout while simultaneously decreasing impact forces is a plus too!

I’ve heard too many runners complain about hills training being over-utilized or misinterpreted. Completing a race with a PR is all about sustainability: pushing your body at the upper limits of effort without completely spilling over. There will definitely be hills out there too steep to run, and even times when power-walking will move you just as quickly or faster than attempting to run, but that’s ok.

Training on hills regularly will help you run faster on the flats. It will help you manage those hills on race day a little bit better, even if you need to walk a bit. A consistently structured focus on inclined workouts will help you tap into potentially neglected muscle groups, developing greater strength along the way.

Thanks for reading, and don't worry, I'll be writing about all the glories of downhill running in a later post so stay tuned. If you're struggling on the hills in your training right now, go to our site and book your first appointment today. We build better runners!

Until next time: keep moving!  And speaking of hills, check out this beast of a race in Seward, Alaska!