Hill training has been used as part of a workout regimen for athletes, the military and general fitness enthusiasts for centuries. The simplicity of hill training—whereby one literally runs up a hill—as well as its effectiveness has ensured that it has stood the test of time. There will always be a use for hill training—but what has made it such a popular training exercise, and what benefits do you stand to gain from including it in your workout regimen?
Less impact on joints
When running uphill (as opposed to traditional running on level ground), there is a reduced impact on the lower leg bones (the tibia and fibula) and ankle and knee joints. This is because you produce less landing impact when running up a hill, so your muscles are better able to act as shock absorbers to protect your bones and joints. With that being said, there is a high level of impact when you run down the hill, which is why that section of the run should be performed at a lower intensity than when you move up the hill. Even so, gentle downhill runs are a great way to enhance the shock-absorbing capabilities of the muscles in your legs as they progressively adapt to the stress placed upon them.
Builds muscle and power
When running uphill, your muscles have to work harder to battle against the gradient and gravity. This means that the muscles in your hips and legs (specifically your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves) are forced to contract more powerfully while supporting your full body weight in order to get up the hill—which means they’ll be getting stronger as a result. When you consider that sprint training on level ground is proven to build muscle and increase the fast-twitch fibers of our muscles, imagine the explosive power you’ll be able to build from sprinting against gradients and gravity. In addition, hill sprints in particular can produce specific adaptations in the neuromuscular system (i.e., rate of motor unit recruitment, synchronization, etc.) that will allow the body to generate force faster. The faster you can summon force, the more total force power you can generate during a rep attempt. Obviously, this has a tremendous carryover to a number of movements within CrossFit—especially the Olympic lifts.
Lastly, hill sprints give your testosterone levels a brief boost without elevating cortisol levels. This is important because testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for the growth of muscle tissue, whereas cortisol is responsible for muscle waste and fat storage.
Improves running form, economy, and endurance
When performing hill runs, the musculature that surrounds your ankle, knee and hip joints are forced to contract in a coordinated fashion, which results in greater power output. With more power, you can produce longer, faster running strides. Simply put, because you have to concentrate on lifting your knees, driving your arms and pushing off your feet when hill training, your running form will be exaggerated and improved.
Another cool aspect of hill running is that it increases your ankle flexion, which allows you to “pop” off the ground more quickly. This means that you’ll be spending more time in the air and less time on the ground, which is good for your running economy and pace.
To give you some idea of how hill training can impact a runner’s economy, consider a famous study performed at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The 12-week study examined the impact of twice-weekly hill sessions on the running economy of trained marathoners. The researchers found that “after 12 weeks of twice weekly hill sessions, the athlete’s running economy had improved by 3%. This improvement would have helped them take as much as 2 minutes off a 10 mile time or 6 minutes off a marathon.”
Additional research conducted by Dr. Bengt Saltin at the University of Copenhagen revealed that runners who incorporated hill sessions into their training had higher levels of aerobic enzymes in their quadriceps muscles. Aerobic enzymes are chemicals that allow your muscles to function at high intensity for long periods without fatigue.
It’s more diverse than you think
Yes, the concept is as basic as it gets—get from point A to point B—but you can get creative with how you get from point to point. You have the option of performing:
Hill runs with weight vest/sandbags/parachute
Long hill runs
Bear crawls (face forward uphill, backward downhill)
And depending on where you live, you have the option of doing hill training on different types of terrain—sand, gravel, mud, snow, forest, etc.—which can provide another challenge to your workouts.