Hill sessions are quite a paradox to me. In terms of my own training, I hate them passionately. I’m not made for hills, at least, that’s what I tell myself. Yet I firmly believe that Hill Running Workouts are simply awesome in promoting running strength and developing good form!
If hill sessions are so great, then why do I often meet runners who attribute their particular running injury (often ITB Syndrome, Runner’s Knee, Achilles Tendon or Calf injuries) to the new inclusion of hill training into their routine?
As with most things in sport, technique is one big determining factor of success, both in terms of performance and the ability to remain injury free. For some sports, you can identify one ‘best’ technique. Running technique however, is entirely subject and situation specific. It’s impossible to define perfect form. Instead we should strive for better form. This is equally important for running up and down hill as it is for running on flat surfaces.
In terms of being ‘situation specific’, obviously the gradient of the hill is an important factor to take into account. Technique for a gentle hill won’t feel particularly different to running on the flat. However, as the gradient increases, running form both uphill and down will change dramatically.
In the last few months, I’ve done a fair bit of in-the-field video analysis and coaching work looking specifically at the uphill and downhill techniques of runners. There are a number of commonly observed technique flaws which if left un-fixed can lead to increased chance of injury, and reduce the effectiveness of your hill running workouts.
Maybe I should re-think my earlier statement. How about:
“Hill running workouts performed with good form are simply awesome in promoting running strength and developing good form. Performed with poor form though, you’ll most likely be exacerbating flawed movement patterns and putting yourself at greater risk of injury”.
Five Tips For Great Hill Running Technique
Below are five practical run technique tips for approaching your hill sessions. Hills obviously vary in gradient, so here are some general tips for you to go out and try!
1) Select The Correct Gear
I’m not talking about running footwear, or your choice of technical apparel! Instead, I often liken running up hill to cycling up hill.
On a bike, with a long steady climb ahead, you’ll probably want to choose a gear which enables you to keep your legs turning at a steady rate, with a consistent level of effort being spent from bottom to top. Choose too big a gear and you’ll end up dropping your cadence and trying to grind the hill out, your heart-rate and effort level will rocket. Instead keep your cadence high in a gear that feels relatively sustainable for the duration of the hill. The same can be said for running! Think of ‘cadence’ as stride frequency (same thing), and ‘gear selection’ as your stride length.
Attack the hill with too big a stride, as many do, and you’ll drop your cadence as you fatigue quickly – leaving having to propel yourself with excessively with each stride. As a result you’ll be spent at (or before) the top.
Instead, ‘drop a couple of gears‘ by shortening your stride, and increase your stride frequency (cadence). You won’t feel like you’re powering up the hill in the same way – but that’s not the goal. On this steady hill, the goal is to maintain a level-effort from bottom to top, leaving you (relatively!) fresh to attach your opponents on the next section 🙂
2) Pick Your Feet Up!
I can hear my mother’s words echoing in my ears with this cue. I was forever scuffing my feet as a kid!
Seriously though, as you run uphill, even more emphasis is put on the swing phase of your running form. Do your quads (thigh muscles) burn after a few reps of running up hill?
If so, it’s possible that you’re one of the many runners who are inherently Quad and Hip Flexor dominant – using the strong anterior chain muscles, particularly Rectus Femoris, Iliopsoas, and TFL to flex the hip, driving the knee forwards and up onto the next step uphill. Of course, these anterior muscles are meant to provide much force at the hip the drive the knee forwards. However, they’re not particularly efficient at doing this without the help of the Hamstrings.
Ideally the Hamstrings will act to help flex the knee a little (degree is dependent on pace or gradient or run). This creates a shorter lever arm at the hip, resulting in less torque needed to at the hip to produce flexion.
Simply put: lifting your foot a little with each step uphill – kind of like you were stepping over something – will reduce load on your Quads and Hip Flexors, by activating your Hamstrings.
Try it your self: Find a steady hill and first run up with a low foot carry. Now try again, lifting the foot slightly higher as you bring it off the ground.
3) Use Your Arms
Uphill – Many runners seem to either not use their arms at all, or if they do, they direct all the forces in the wrong direction! Try this cue: As you run uphill, keep the arms comfortably bent at the elbow to around 900 and relaxed. Forcefully drive the point of your elbow backwards with each arm swing. The more intensity you’re running with, the harder the drive. Keep the arms moving quickly to help maintain a quick running cadence for the legs.
Downhill – While the use of the arms in running up hill is all about propulsion. Running downhill often requires use of the arms for increased balance, especially as the gradient and speed increases. Keep your left hand to the left of your body, and your right hand to the right, rather than allowing the hands to cross the body. We don’t want excessive rotation. However, you may find it useful to flare the elbows out to the sides away from your body as you descend significant hills at pace. Like a tightrope walker’s pole, this will help you keep balance.
4) Run Tall and Look Ahead
You’ll see it at almost every race – the runner who, through fatigue, becomes more ‘bent over’ as the hill progresses. Don’t be that guy!
Instead be aware of your posture. Staying tall maintains your ability to use your posterior chain (Glutes and Hamstrings in particular) to power you up hill through stance phase of your running gait pattern. I like the cue of ‘hold your hips high‘ as a focus point to encourage good posture.
Higher up the body, think about your head. It’s heavy! Looking at the floor immediately ahead of you will only cause you to drop your head forwards – encouraging the bad stooping posture we don’t want to see. If you need to check the upcoming terrain, get your head up and watch the ground 30-40 feet ahead of you. If not, try focusing on the crest of the hill.
5) Use Your Hill Sessions As Technique Sessions
Your hill running workouts, when performed correctly, will not only provide excellent strength and speed benefits, they will brilliantly develop good movement patterns for running with good form on the flat.
I usually encourage runners not to approach hill sessions as an out-and-out killer session, but instead to stop when technique fails. This will help you reinforce good running form habits. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to hold good form for longer.