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Running hills? Ask the experts (full transcript)

Below is the full transcript of interviews our writer Rob Haneisen conducted with running coaches about hill running. Short on time? Read the highlights here.

MEET THE EXPERTS:

Albert Dell’Apa from Toronto, Canada is the distance running coach with Raging Bull Road Runners in Toronto, Canada. A NCCP certified coach, he has run and raced competitively – on the road, track, and trails – for more than 30 years.

Denny Krahe from Lakeland, Fla. helps runners that run with pain kick their injuries for good & experience the joy of running pain free. Coach | ATC | CSCS.

Angela Bekkala from New Hampshire is a Certified RRCA Running Coach, an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist (CES), and blogger at Happy Fit Mama.

Meredith O’Brien from Virginia Beach, VA is a USA Track and Field Level I Coach, Crossfit Endurance Coach, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, and owner of FitNicePT.

What are the main benefits to running hills?
Dell’Apa: I always tell my athletes that hill training is really the  ‘superfood; of distance running training. Various types of hill training can enhance stamina, endurance, speed, strength and even form. Hill training has been well documented to also improve the strength and elasticity of tendons and ligaments. I think hill training should be an integral part of any distance running program regardless of the distance or the race course. The benefits derived from hill training go well beyond being able to run hills well.

Krahe: Running hills improves leg strength for sure. And I think training on hills really helps improve confidence when a race includes some hills. I always hear other runners moan about the hills during races, and I just smile and power through them because I’ve already done the work!

Bekkala: Hills are speed work and strength training in disguise. Doing hill repeats will increase your endurance, speed and build up your leg muscles since it’s essentially doing a plyometric exercise every time you power your leg up the hill.

O’Brien: Hills build strength and stability, give training variety and can be lots of fun.

How often do you recommend runners include hills in workouts? Any particular kind of hills (long and gradual or short and steep? Or both?
Dell’Apa: This really depends on what the runner is training for. For example, if it is for cross country season, I may set out a hill workout once a week for six weeks early in the program in the build-up phase and then add in a couple of hill workouts later in the program to test the runner’s progress. Generally, I like to include the hill workouts early in the training plan to help lay the foundation and building blocks for the rest of the training. The hill sessions would include a mix of short hills done at a faster pace as well as longer ones that focus more on the endurance and form.

Krahe: It’s a tough workout, so no more than once per week and probably more like every other week would suffice. As for the type, make use of what you have in the area in which you live.

Bekkala: Any particular kind of hills (long and gradual or short and steep? Or both? I recommend that runners include both types of hill workouts throughout training. Long, gradual hill repeats are great for building general running strength and fitness. While short and steep hills are more explosive which build up maximal stroke volume of the heart, i.e. makes your heart more efficient. Plus, it’s a good way to mix up the routine.

O’Brien: Each type of hill has its own benefits. Running a long, gradual hill can increase strength, ankle flexibility and reduce neuromuscular inhibition, leading to better coordination. Sprinting a short steep hill will help build power and decrease neuromuscular inhibition, making it easier to run hard and fast. Choosing a hill that matches your workout is key to getting the most out of it.

If you don’t live near hills, what do you recommend?
Dell’Apa: I would recommend drills … that accentuate form, high knee lift and work to strengthen the tendons and ligaments in much the same way as running hills would do. These can be done 2-3 times a week before or after a run. 3-5 sets of 30seconds each go a long way in the runners development.

Krahe: I live in Central Florida, so I’m familiar with finding hills when none exist. First and foremost, I don’t think of the area I live in as having many hills but it’s surprising how many small hills we have. Don’t overlook some of the options that you might have, but if you really have no natural hills in your area highway overpasses and parking garages can do the trick.

Bekkala: The incline portion of parking garages and bridges are always a great outside alternatives to actual hills. If you really are stuck, running stairs or setting a steep incline on the treadmill will work the same way.

O’Brien: Hit the gym, rock the treadmill, and find a parking garage. Strengthen your muscles for hill climbing with weight training and increase ankle stability by balancing on one bare foot with your eyes closed. If you’re hitting the treadmill for an incline workout, play with higher and lower positions to meet that workout’s goal. Parking garages are easy to find and if there are a few to choose from, odds are you’ll have a variety of inclines, too.

Conversely, if you live in an area where there are nothing but hills, what would you caution runners about regarding overuse injury?
Dell’Apa: I recommend that runners save the real hill exertion and work for the hill workouts and run the hills at normal pace on regular runs. Runners should focus on maintaining the same level of effort when running hills [than when on flat land]. Another piece of advice is to control the downhill running portion of the hill. It is easy to over stride and cause muscle or other damage when trying to attack the downhill.

Krahe: Find some flat areas, even if that means going to the high school track and running laps.

Bekkala: Repeatedly running on nothing but hills can lead to ankle, foot, and knee problems. Try to find at least one route that is less hilly to use a few times per week.

O’Brien: Take it easy. A hard hill running workout is potentially as much of a strength workout as hitting the weight room. Most runners tend to run easy days too fast. Learning how to slow down to let muscles recover from the previous day’s challenge and never being afraid to take an extra day off is important.

When running hills, is there a part of running form that is most important to maintain?
Dell’Apa: On the uphill portion of the hill, runners should try and lean forward slightly at the waist into the hill and really drive with the arms to propel themselves forward. Really try and get up on the front part of the foot and drive with the ankles using shorter strides. Coming downhill, again, it is really important to maintain control. Lean forward slightly if possible to use the hill to your advantage and open up your stride. Depending on the size and steepness of the hill, you can put your arms out slightly to the side for better balance and control.

Krahe: Good form is always important to maintain, running hills or not!

Bekkala: The most important thing to remember with running hills is to stand tall. It’s a natural instinct to lean into the hill, but doing so too much prevents you from swinging your leg forward from your hip.

O’Brien: Whether you’re going up or down the hill stay standing up. Avoid breaking at the hip and letting your feet get behind (going up) or in front of you (going down). Maintaining proper posture will give you more power going up and help you find the downhill speed increase you deserve.

Is there a particular body type or runner that tends to do better on hills or suffer more on hills?
Dell’Apa: I think proper form is key for hill running regardless of the body type. Different runners will certainly move faster on the hills but having good hill running form will improve the efficiency in moving up the hill regardless of the type of runner. Smaller, leaner runners may feel less impact on the downhill portions of the hill so larger runners should take more caution in attacking the downhill portions.

Krahe: I think everyone suffers on hills! But the payoff is worth the pain!

Bekkala: Runners with good muscular strength in their legs are generally the best at hill climbing. But really, I think most people have a love/hate relationship with hills!

O’Brien: Everyone can be successful on hills. It’s all about practice and preparation. Being strong and mobile enough to put power into the ground while maintaining good position and posture is the most important thing.

Any last bits of advice on hill running?
Dell’Apa: I like to break the hill up into four phases: 1. The approach – as you approach the hill, gauge it and get a sense of how long the hill is and try and determine the amount of effort needed for the climb. 2. The climb – using good form and consistent effort, work through the uphill portion of the hill. 3. The crest – work through the top of the hill, trying not to slow down when reaching the top of the hill. Particularly in races, runners will be relieved to have made it to the top and will slow down. Moving through the crest will give you an advantage, physically and mentally. Expend your effort accordingly, factoring in pushing through the crest of the hill at the top. 4. The descent – again, really controlling the downhill, opening up the stride and leaning forward slightly.

Krahe: Don’t just run uphills! Too often, we run up the hill and walk down for our recovery before doing the next repeat. In a race, you have to run up AND down the hills, so preparing yourself to run down hills is a must. The more I practice running down the hills, the more people I fly by in a race on the downhills! When you’re running down hill, let gravity do the work. You might feel like you’re running too fast, but as you practice it you’ll learn to keep your strides shorter and speed up your turnover so you’re really accelerating down the hills at your next race.

 

Bekkala: When planning your running route, don’t avoid the hills. Most race courses are rolling hills so the more you do them, the more efficient you will be in your next race.

O’Brien: Practice! Even if you live somewhere flat you can become a stronger hill runner by using what you do have (treadmills, parking garages, free weights).