CONQUERING THE CLIMB SERIES: THE BENEFITS OF UPHILL RUNNING
Updated: Feb 2
~ By Annie Bothma, January 2023
Let's face it running isn't easy, and if you want to make it even harder, all you have to do is add a few hills into the mix. Most runners dread the climb and as a result stick to flatter courses or try to avoid hills. However, if you learn to embrace the climb you will not only add more variation to your training, but you will become a stronger better runner. Plus, the hilly route is typically the more scenic route and often the view from the top makes the climb worth while! Whether you’re looking to improve your performance or currently preparing for a hilly race, this post will convince you why uphill running is important!
SPEED-TRAINING IN DISGUISE
Did you know, the muscles used for running uphill are the same ones recruited for sprinting, so hill repeats can help condition your body for faster paces. Hill repeats are a big part of all sprinter's training regimes. Therefore, hill-training can be a great way to improve your speed with less impact than traditional interval training on a flat surface.
Uphill running has the benefit of working on both endurance and speed at the same time. In fact, it does not just make you physically stronger to run uphill, but the mental resilience and endurance you get from conquering the climb will help you to keep going when the going gets tough on race day. If you have ever ran up a really long steep hill before or done multiple hill-repetitions, you will understand what I am talking about here!
IMPROVE YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM
Uphill running doesn't just make your legs stronger, but also your lungs! When you run uphill the oxygen demand from your muscles is higher, so your heart rate naturally rises and you have to breathe deeper and faster than when you run on flat roads. Therefore, over time if you keep at it, hill workouts can strengthen your heart and lungs, which will increase your stroke volume and tidal volume.
When you are running uphill you are working against gravity. Therefore, it’s best to think of uphill running as a form of resistance training. If you are not currently doing strength training as a runner, you are missing out on some serious benefits, but if the gym is not for you then uphill running might just be the next best thing.
Uphill running will strengthen your glutes, calves, hamstrings and feet. It is also important to engage your core when you are running uphill and focus on driving with your arms to power you up the hill. Thus, running uphill is not only a lower-body workout, but also has the potential to increase your upper-body strength.
READY TO TAKE ON ANY RACE
When getting race ready it's important to put in the time and distance needed to line-up confident on race day that you are ready for the task at hand. Uphill running can be a great added feature to any training schedule, regardless of the race profile. The East African runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda do the majority of their training on hilly terrain, even when they are busy preparing for a flat and fast overseas-race. In my experience, when you train mostly on hilly terrain, running on the flat feels easier and you are able to go faster with less strain! Remember, it’s also common to come across a few hills on race day, so you want to be mentally and physically prepared for that aspect of the race, especially if you are targeting a challenging hilly race like, Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, Comrades, Boston or New York.
One of the most effective ways to avoid any running-related injuries is to train on all types of terrain. One of the risks of repetitive high-impact running is the development of overuse injuries. Your bones, joints, cartilage, and connective tissues are subjected to lots of pounding with all the mileage that comes with distance running. Running uphill can reduce the risk of certain common running injuries, such as shin splints and knee pain because it recruits large muscles like the glutes and hamstrings and reduces the pounding impact and load on your bones and joints.
That said, don't just start off by running up or down any hills, instead make sure you first do a proper warm up on a flat surface before taking on the hills. Uphill-running simply requires a solid warm up, good technique and a “mind over matter” attitude to reap the most benefits.
IMPROVE YOUR RUNNING FORM
Running uphill encourages god running form. When you are running uphill it forces a strong knee drive, good posture, and demands a quick turnover with a shorter stride such that you land more on the balls of your feet or mid-foot rather than your heel. Remember to keep your core tight - don’t hunch over!
BETTER RUNNING ECONOMY
Uphill running has the ability to improve your economy and make you a more efficient runner by increasing your cardiovascular capacity and aerobic energy production. With good running economy, you can run faster and longer before being overcome by fatigue.
Let’s face it, even the best and most consistent runners often crave a change of scenery from time to time. Adding variety and changing up your running routes is part of what keeps it fun and sustainable to train hard. Make running a journey and allow yourself to explore new scenic routes in your area. Don't avoid certain routes just because there is a few hills along the way, try to see it as a challenge instead of something you dread. You’re likely to feel a big difference in terms of the mental strength needed to keep going on the uphill, so there won't be any room left for boredom to creep in. The satisfaction of reaching the top is also pretty unbeatable, and the constantly changing view can do wonders to keep your mind busy on your next long run.
If you are someone who does mostly flat-distance running, then try stepping it up by facing the hills. Remember, what goes up must come down! So if you are able to push through the uphill, pause and take a moment to enjoy the view, and then embrace the downhill!
Stay tuned for tips on how to become a become a better uphill runner and for some key hill-workouts you can work into your running program to get faster and stronger!