On Hills

Within running distance of my house is the lowest point in the United Kingdom: Holme Fen, nine feet below sea level. Hearing athletes talk about the benefits of high altitude training, or espousing on the strengthening qualities of vertical running, whilst I live and run in one of the flattest, lowest points of Earth that you could ever hope to find, has given the “hill” a mythical aspect in my mind. 

I find myself dreaming of hills, searching for them in these most unlikely of lands and, although the high altitude is simply not going to happen, I have been able to find some challenging points to wrack up some elevation gain. It did help that I recently took a trip up North, where the witchy Pendle Hill, and a 16% incline road, provided plenty of quad and calf busting glory. 

Since coming back home, I’ve been craving the incline even more. 

But what’s the point? What’s the benefit? 

Hills, to a flatland runner like me, are an obstacle. They are something to be noted about a race. ‘Look out for that hill on mile 9,’ we might say, ‘It’s a killer.’ So, for a start, they are worth practising for any racing runner because we do not control the course of every race in the country, and if we want to expand our competitive horizons we are likely to find ourselves in the cruel grip of race organisers keen to incorporate the most violent hills that their parish entertains. 

Even if you’re not racing hills they are good for you. The nature of uphill running, that is, the fact that each step is necessarily higher than the previous, will improve your running economy, quicken your stride, and help develop your muscles as to restrict their soreness (although, in the short term, it may feel like their soreness has been enhanced). 

This isn’t just experience talking, or my own weird personal preference for hills borne from my geographical positioning away from the real bigguns, this is science:

From Runners World – Everything You Need to Know About Hill Training

‘[…]research, carried out by Dr Bengt Saltin, discovered that runners who trained on hills have much higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes – the chemicals which allow your muscles to function at high intensity for long periods without fatigue – in their quadriceps muscles than those who did all their running on flat terrain. Heightened aerobic power in your quads gives you improved knee lift while running and also accelerates each leg forward more quickly as you run, which improves your speed.’

How should we train on hills then? I am not an expert, but my philosophy is to focus on variety. Not all hills are the same, and not all hills that you race will be the same. 

It is also no fun to do the same monotonous thing over and over again, mix it up. 

If you can find a short, sharp hill to sprint up then great, but I like to incorporate some downhill running into sessions as well. An undulating course which you can run at a decent effort (forget speed when it comes to hills, the key word is effort), close to how hard a fast 10k might feel, is ideal for incorporating the tough ups, and downs. 

And do not neglect those downs! 

The downs are where most hill-related-injuries arrive, and where most of my personal muscle aches come from, as we battle to find a middle ground between an overenthusiastic, gravity inspired sprint, and a strained struggle to apply the brakes. 

And if you really, really can’t find a hill for whatever reason, most treadmills have an incline setting near to that speed button, and if you don’t have a treadmill well…

What’s the longest set of stairs that you can find?

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