Hills. Mention them, and people grin ear-to-ear or shudder visibly. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny the benefits of uphill running.
No matter your choice of running — trail or road — hills will help you take your fitness to the next level.
From the benefits for your cardiovascular system to the strength gains, it’s time to stop ignoring those dreaded hills and take them head-on.
This is the second part of a two-part series. In the first part, we looked at downhill running and improving our running on descents.
Here, we will learn the benefits of uphill running, how to improve our form, and a few workouts to help you get started.
Uphill Running Benefits
Surely, all of the burning in our legs, heavy breathing, and increased heart rate pay off somehow, right?
Yes, actually. That’s exactly right.
I know I said to hike the hills in prior posts, but running the uphills, especially in training has huge benefits in your training. And in racing, a mix of running and hiking the uphills will be the best strategy.
So let’s take a look at some of the uphill running benefits.
Increased Muscle Strength
A frequent problem for runners who primarily run on flat terrain is the repeated use of the same muscles. This leaves other muscles of the legs — like the glutes, hamstrings, and quads — feeling like the red-headed step-child.
Incorporating regular hills into your training will recruit these muscles, engaging them and forcing them to work when they’re not used to.
This not only increases your overall leg strength but also reduces the chance of overuse injuries.
By hitting the hills, you’re giving the overworked muscles from flat running a break and asking your lesser-used muscles to pick up the slack.
Improved VO2 Max, Resting Heart Rate, and Speed Endurance
A study published in the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications in 2017 showed an increase in these three metrics with the regular use of hill training.
Ethiopian researchers divided middle and long-distance athletes into two groups: a control and an experimental group.
Before the test, the researchers checked participants for various fitness metrics—like VO2 max, resting heart rate, race times, and speed endurance.
The control group only performed endurance training, primarily focusing on flat terrain.
However, the experimental group incorporated two hill workouts every week for 12 weeks, in addition to endurance training.
After 12 weeks, the experimental group showed significant improvements in their VO2 max, resting heart rate, and speed endurance. The control group, however, didn’t show any significant change.
This led researchers to posit the study “demonstrated that 12 weeks of hill training can significantly improve VO2 max, RHR., speed endurance and race performance in club level middle and long-distance athletes.”
Increased Mental Endurance
Uphill running is hard. There’s no way around it. However, that difficulty serves a purpose.
By hitting the hills consistently, you’re not only training your muscles, but you’re also training your mind.
As you climb, the burn in your legs increases, your heart rate gets faster, your breathing becomes labored, and your little central governor — your brain — starts telling you to stop.
This is where you see improvements in your mental toughness.
The ability to keep pushing through something difficult breaks down the walls your brain has put up. You realize you’re capable of doing something you thought you couldn’t before.
This pays dividends in future training, as well as in races.
When things get tough, you have the experience and willpower to tell your brain to “shut the f*** up” and keep pushing.
Our strength comes from experience, which is only built by putting yourself in the situation to get experience.
So let’s get in the pain cave, cookie jar, or whatever you like to call it. It’s time to start digging.
Uphill Running Tips
Okay, now we understand why descents are so taxing on your body, we can talk about bettering your form. So, here are some uphill running tips.
Lean Forward at Your Ankles, Not Your Hips
This will be similar to the advice given in the post about downhill running, but you will want to adjust your form slightly.
While running/hiking a hill, it’s common to bend at the hip to distribute your weight evenly. However, this collapses your core, which inhibits your breathing.
In addition, you can’t utilize your hips properly. You make it more difficult for your body to engage your hip flexors when pushing off by leaning forward. This weakens your stride, providing less power.
Instead, focus on keeping yourself tall and upright.
Lean forward at your ankles, which keeps your body upright. By doing this, you engage your hip flexors and your calf muscles. This gives you more power to keep you moving uphill.
An excellent way to help with this is to keep looking straight ahead while you go uphill. This helps you from bending too much at the waist to keep you upright.
Use Your Arms for Power
When running, your arms play a very underrated role. They’re used for momentum to keep you going when you’re running on the flats and for balance when you’re running downhill.
When pushing yourself uphill, your arms create a pendulum that can provide a boost in momentum to propel you forward. This momentum helps take some load off your legs.
So, as you’re driving yourself uphill, keep those arms swinging, and you’ll notice a big difference in how easy hills become.
Take More Steps
Naturally, you’re not able to take those long strides as you do on flat ground. But this isn’t a bad thing.
Keep the same cadence you’re running with on the flats, except keep your steps closer together. It feels like you’ve slowed significantly and you’re not going anywhere. But, your glutes, quads, and calves will thank you.
You’re still getting the power you need to push you forward. And you’re keeping your effort at a more sustainable level and not burning your muscles out too early.
An essential measurement will be your breath. It’s always important to keep your breath under control, but it is crucial when running uphill. If your breath begins to quicken too much, then you want to reduce your speed to keep it at a manageable level.
Keep a Consistent Effort
You’re not able to keep the same pace on a hill you have on flats. But you want to avoid aiming for that. We want to aim for a consistent effort level.
If you try to maintain the same pace, you’ll overexert yourself and deplete yourself for the rest of your run.
Instead, aim to keep your breathing and effort at a consistent level all the way through the hill. Then, when you get to the top, don’t stop.
Keep your effort level going through the top of the hill and into the flat or downhill.
Lift Your Knees and Drive Forward
Drive off your toes to push your knee up. This engages your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves to propel you uphill.
As you bring your foot down, land on your forefoot and then bring your heel down, allowing your calf to lengthen.
When you’re getting ready to push off again, push hard off your forefoot to allow your calf to act as a spring as you drive your knee upward.
As well, by adopting this running style, you’re utilizing all the muscles in your leg and allowing them to strengthen throughout your uphill training.
Uphill Running Training Tips
Hill workouts don’t present the same injury risks you can get from downhill workouts.
The lessened impact on your legs allows your legs to recover much faster. The physiological gains you get — as was mentioned above — pay benefits beyond your climbing speed/skills.
You don’t only get the physiological benefits, though. Hill workouts are flat-out hard. You suffer through them, and you have to work hard to maintain your effort. And that pays off in your mental endurance.
So, when you’re in the middle of this workout, and you’re digging deep to find the extra bit of yourself to keep you going, know this helps with your future self.
Below, I’ll list a beginner workout to get you started. Then, I’ll list some of my favorite hill workouts.
Uphill Running Workouts
Beginner Uphill Running Workout
- Warm up for 10-15 minutes to prepare your muscles and ready for your workout. The last thing we want is to injure ourselves, and a good warm-up is crucial to avoid this.
- Find a hill with a similar grade to your target event. If you don’t have a target race, then find a hill with a moderate amount of incline/decline.
- Run up the hill for 30 seconds at a moderate pace. Focus on form more than anything. Keep your eyes looking straight ahead, pump your arms back and forth, short steps with a consistent effort, and drive your knees up.
- Once the 30 seconds are over, walk down the hill for recovery. Take your time with this to allow yourself to recover correctly, about 60-90 seconds.
- Repeat 4-5 times, or as long as you can while keeping proper form.
- Work in a cool down to give your body time to come out of your workout.
I love many hill workouts and there are more I need to work into my running schedule. Here are a few favorites of my favorites that will benefit you.
These are from Coach David Roche, who is an invaluable source when it comes to hills.
The Shark Teeth
This is a challenging workout, but not too difficult that you want to avoid the workout altogether. The 2-minute recovery will help you clear out the lactate in your legs and prepare you for the next round.
- 8x 1-minute steep hills
- Moderately hard on the uphill, 2 minutes of easy recovery walking down
Nice Legs Finish Blasted
This one asks a bit more of your leg muscles and will have you spent by the end. But that’s a good thing! The stimulus you receive from this reaps massive rewards in your training.
- 4x 2-minute hills moderately hard, run down for recovery
- 4x 1-minute hills hard on the uphill, run down for recovery
- 4x 30-second steep hills as hard as you can
THE HILL BEAST
This one is tough. And, yes, that’s an understatement. In all reality, this one will take a bit of your soul with it and leave it on the hills. But, any mountain you encounter after this will be a piece of cake.
- 10/8/6/4/2 minute hills moderately hard, run down for recovery in between
Trail Runner Magazine has more to offer from Coach David Roche if you want to find more of these workouts.
Whether you enjoy uphill running or not, adding it to your training helps improve your overall running. Even if you add one day a week, it’s worth it.
So, get out there and find a hill, then just start running up it. You’ll appreciate it later.