How to be a Stronger Runner

Hills, hills, hills. If you're a downhill skier, you love them. If you're a runner, however, you likely dread them in your races and training routes.The truth is, hills can be used to our advantage to become stronger and faster runners.

Why is running uphill such a challenge? The reason has to do with what Newton called gravity. As the road or trail rises, we are forced to carry our weight against gravity. The steeper the hill, the harder it is. Moving ourselves upward against the forces of gravity requires running-specific strength, which isn't developed during a typical "flat road" running routine.

Running, especially on flat roads, tends to break the body down and weaken muscles. Hill training, incorporated into a progressive running plan, is an excellent way to build strength and improve overall fitness. Here are some hill training tips to conquer those inclines on your daily runs and on race day with ease.

It is important to mix up the length and incline of the hills. Moderate hills allow you to keep your stride rate and intensity up, but don't coerce your body into generating too much force. Short and steep hills allow your body to produce more force with each stride. This leads to naturally longer strides as your body adapts and becomes stronger. However, if the hill you choose is too steep, your stride rate or speed may drop too low, which negatively affects how your nervous system adapts to the training.

Mix up your routine by using different hills for each session. On a steeper hill, keep the duration around 20 to 30 seconds or about 20 to 50 meters. On long hills with a gradual incline, aim for 1 to 3 minutes in duration or about 400 meters.

To safely integrate hill workouts into your routine, consider the "5 Percent Rule." If you run about 20  miles per week, your initial maximum hill climbing distance per workout is (.05 x 20) = 1 mile. That translates into four reps on a 400-meter hill.

Remember, it is better to err on the side of caution, especially since you will be running downhill after each rep. If you progress well with each session, you can increase the workload to five or six reps on the next session.

The ideal hill running form starts with great posture: Stand tall, pushing forward from your hips as you focus on keeping your head directly on top of a long spine. Look down slightly at the ground in front of you and relax your shoulders down and back. Swing your elbows back with each stride to help drive your legs up the hill. Relax and allow your body to lean forward slightly from the ankles (not the waist) as you push up and forward from your toes.

It is also important to keep good downhill form. Don't lean back and brake hard with each stride, landing hard on your heels and thus increasing joint stress. Relax forward and lean away from the hill. Try to land lightly, attempting to keep your body perpendicular to the ground as your foot comes down under your hips. One smart approach is to practice this downhill "falling" on moderate hills before attempting on steeper ones. Visualize yourself as a ball bouncing down the hill, landing from one midfoot to the other.

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