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Love them or Hate Them: Running Hills is Good for Long Distance Training

Running for long distance

Training for a long-distance race? Most training programs will include not only progressively longer runs, but will also incorporate workouts that are meant to improve speed and strength. Many runners dread hill training. But here’s why you should embrace them.


Researchers at South Dakota State University have found that running on a 10% incline can improve overall performance of long distance runners.

Derek Ferley, an education and research coordinator at Avera Sports Institution, studied 32 physically fit distance runners for six weeks. The participants included 14 men and 18 women with an average age of 27. Each experimental group ran intervals on a treadmill twice a week – one on a 10% incline for 30 seconds and the other on a level grade. A control group did not run intervals.

Both experimental groups improved on two key indicators of performance – maximal oxygen consumption and aerobic capacity. The term VO2max is used to refer to the maximal rate at which oxygen can be consumed during exercise and correlates with endurance performance. Increasing the intensity of your training regimen can potentially increase your VO2max by 10-20%.

Hill running increases leg-muscle power; improves fitness; and uses the muscles of the legs, arms and core in ways that are different than running on flat surfaces.

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Coach Jenny Hadfield offers this tip for learning to love hill training: Think of it as a vertical challenge, like mountain climbing. “Be the mountain,” she says in Runner’s World magazine. To learn to run hills efficiently, try this workout:

• Warm up with walking and easy running for 10 minutes.
• Run 10-15 minutes of hill repeats. It's best to find a hill or bridge where it takes you at least one minute to run.
• Rather than trying to conquer the hill by running it hard or trying to maintain a certain pace, run it by effort and keep it at an easy to moderate effort, where you can just hear your breathing (not hard).
• When you reach the top of the hill you should feel challenged but not spent or winded (or swearing). This is the key, as you'll be fresh enough to take advantage of the downhill.
• Run downhill focusing on letting go, opening your stride slightly, striking the ground lightly with your feet just behind your hips (rather than under), and letting the hill pull you down. Again, this shouldn't be run at a fast speed; be cautious, as downhill running increases the impact forces on the body.
• Repeat this for 10-15 minutes and cool down running 10 minutes.

No hills where you train? Stair climbing can also offer many of the same benefits.

• Warm up walking for five minutes.
• Climb stairs for 10-20 minutes and then cool down by walking it out. It's best to perform this workout on at least three to five flights of stairs so it takes you one to three minutes to climb.
• When climbing stairs, walk up them, focusing on keeping your torso tall and getting your whole foot on the step to push through your heel and use your glutes.
• As you build stair fitness, you can increase either the intensity (progress to running up the stairs) or the duration (20-30 minutes). You can also weave this into an easy run, ie. warming up running 10 minutes, climbing stairs for 10 minutes, then run another 10-15 minutes.

South Dakota State University - Treadmill study documents benefits of hill training
How to Learn to Love Hills – Runner’s World Magazine, June 2014