Why You Need Hills In Your Running Routine

I’m new to running, so I’m reading as much as I can about training. Running hills is mentioned pretty often. Why is it important to include hills, and how do I incorporate them into my weekly training?

Dear Mike,

Yes, hill training is important for a number of reasons. In a nutshell, hills are important because they create variety and intensity, which improves your endurance, anaerobic capacity, speed, power, running economy, and overall strength.

For obvious reasons, hills increase the difficulty or the intensity of a run. Climbing a hill naturally increases heart rate, which improves both your aerobic (endurance) and your anaerobic capacity. In this way, hills can actually be used as a form of speedwork because they can simulate the heart rate intensity of a track workout but without the actual speed of the track.

Hills also strengthen your muscular system, improving your running form. Running uphill forces you to lift up your knees higher than usual, which improves stride length and speed. This also aids muscle development to increase power.

Hill training forces your nervous system to change your firing pattern rate as your running gait changes for ascending and descending hills. This change in firing pattern helps recruit your fast-twitch muscle fibers, improves leg turnover rate, and appears to help you fight off central nervous system fatigue. Research indicates that when running the same pace, with the same gait, and the same leg turnover rate, the brain becomes fatigued from receiving the same stimulus information over and over.

Since you are new to running, however, when to implement hill training into your routine depends on where you are with your training. As a general guideline, wait to begin hill training until you are regularly running about 24 kilometres a week. At that point, you should have attained adequate conditioning to begin increasing the intensity. Include a hill run once every two or three weeks at first. You can increase that to once every one or two weeks after adequately adapting.

When creating a hill route, it’s about the hills themselves but also about safety. Consider the amount of traffic on the road, visibility (no blind curves), and condition of the road. The “ideal” hill is about one-quarter mile to a half-mile in length with a four to seven percent incline. Plan a warmup period of one to two miles before climbing hills and a cooldown segment afterward.

In flat areas of the country, runners often have to seek alternatives. Some use bridges or parking garages, but remember that these are made of unforgiving surfaces like concrete. In addition, some parking garages have very sharp turns that can also increase injury risk.

If you don’t have hills in your area, you can substitute a treadmill workout. On the treadmill, set an incline of five to eight per cent and run at a hard effort for 30 to 45 seconds to simulate a hill climb. Gradually increase this time to 45 to 60 seconds as you adapt to the workout, and you can increase the incline as needed. Run easy for five minutes between these hard efforts.

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