Hill Running: Why Incline Repeats Help You Fly On the Flats

hill running

Take your running to new heights—literally. Get the lowdown on the benefits of hill running and learn how to increase your speed while improving your strength.

Legs hurting, lungs burning—you’re firmly in the pain cave with no hope of getting out when suddenly, you do it. You’re at the summit of the hill and if you’re lucky, you have a view that makes the elevation gain worth it.

Hill running is sometimes an intimidating prospect, but it’s a worthy workout to consider.

If you’re accustomed to running in flat areas, choosing to incorporate hills is choosing to make your life a little harder—but that’s just what you need if you’re looking to improve your speed, strength, and conditioning.

So stave off boredom, challenge your legs and get up that hill. Press on a topic below to jump straight to it, and let’s get started!

Hill Running Benefits

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of why running on sloping surfaces is a beneficial way to increase your overall running economy.

What’s running economy?  This refers to how much oxygen you use— your aerobic capacity, aka your VO2 max—as it relates to your running speed.

Inclines require more effort than running flats, which means more muscles are recruited. Guess what muscles need when they’re under stress? Yep, oxygen.

By doing a hard uphill sprint workout, you’re encouraging more efficient oxygen usage. More oxygenated muscles can mean some satisfying gains in your aerobic endurance.

Running inclines can also build your speed because you’re building muscle when you run against gravity. Think of it as the cardio version of weightlifting.

Hills force different muscles to work together to fight gravity as you push yourself up to the summit, helping correct any muscle imbalances that have occurred from over-training on flat surfaces.

Hills also offer you a lower impact workout session which makes it great to incorporate as a running injury prevention tool while you’re training. Mile after mile of flat road running can result in shin splints and other painful repetitive impact injuries. The stress of repeated hard miles on materials like concrete can do a number on your joints, bones, and muscles. Because of the lower impact advantage of running up hills, you’re less prone to injury.

And of course, doing a hard hill session bolsters your mental strength. Don’t ever forget that athletic feats start with your brain first. Believing you can accomplish a goal is the first step to actually doing it – it sounds cheesy but visualization is a scientifically-backed idea.  See the hill, ascend the hill, defeat the hill.

How to Run Uphill

So, when faced with a hill do you just get up the hill and call it a day? You can. But things will go more smoothly and you’ll see more benefits if you take the time to focus on your form. Follow these tips for adopting better uphill running form:

Hill Sprint Workout

If you’re ready to get your heart rate up, try a hill sprint workout. Here are some recs to get you started:

 

  1. Try 30 second intervals on hills that are between a 5% to 10% incline. Walk or jog in between each interval for a few minutes to get your heart rate down between intervals. Aim to complete 5-8 reps. A good reach goal is being able to complete 10-12 reps comfortably.
  2. For longer sprint intervals, try these 3-minute long killer intervals. For 3 minutes, run at an elevated pace (not an all-out sprint, but not a casual jog), at a 10% incline. Aim to do this two or three times. This is great workout to really test your aerobic conditioning.
  3. If you’re looking for an uphill workout that’ll benefit your distance running, try this specific one that is higher repetition. Find a hill (or set your treadmill setting) that’s between a 5% and 10% grade, run for 10-15 seconds at a sprint pace, and take a short break that’s 1-2 minutes max. Repeat 6-20 times. Stop when your form gets sloppy.

 

What Muscles Do You Work When Running Uphill?

Ready to fire up those muscles? Head to your nearest hill and get to it. Specific muscles working hard during an uphill run include your:

  • Glutes
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

The force of running uphill encourages these muscle groups to work harder than normal meaning more muscle breakdown. But with proper recovery, it also means muscle growth.

How To Run Downhill

Downhill running sounds simple, right? Just let gravity guide you down. In reality, that’s actually not the case. Downhill running can present a challenge because you’re forced to control your speed. Muscles are in a stretched out position while under tension during a decline run. This force can lead to more soreness and fatigue than flat running because of these extra stresses – the same is true for uphill running.

When you’re looking for the right hill for your downhill run, stay away from steep drops which increase the likelihood of falls and injury. The steeper the grade, the more the force each downward step has – more repetitive hard impact on your joints can invite over-use injuries. However, don’t shy away from a steep hill on your upward hill days, just take it easy if you’re going down the same grade.

Like any new training regimen, it’s important to ramp up slowly to give your body and specifically, the bones and muscles in your lower body some time to adjust to the requirements of downhill running. In fact, one of the best ways to start is by choosing a softer surface like dirt or grass (just make sure your training shoes have the right traction elements – like good lugs – for the terrain).

Downhill running is a good training addition but make sure you’re doing it correctly and don’t let your form slip up just because you’re more mentally relaxed when you trot downhill. Running form is important so you can reach the top or bottom of any hill most efficiently.

Here are a couple of tips that’ll ease you into great downhill form:

What Muscles Do You Work When Running Downhill?

Which muscles are getting a workout when you take off down a hill? Plenty. If you’re looking to up the ante on your lower body strength, downhill runs are the key to getting you there. During your descent, you’ll be working the following muscles:

  • Lower back
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Lower abs

Again, make sure you’re not leaning too far back when you’re running downhill because this puts a ton of pressure on your hip flexors and back. It’s like pulling the emergency brake when you’re cruising down the freeway.

Incorporate downhill workouts into your uphill workouts for the best of both worlds. Different sets of muscles are worked and you have a challenge (the uphill) and a reward (the downhill). Variety is the spice of life but also, a critical aspect to training. Hill training will save you from boredom and burning out from too many runs where suffering on the flats is secondary to fun.

Can Running Downhill Make You Faster?

Yes!

Much like uphill running, downhill running can ultimately help you run faster on flat routes because it challenges and develops different muscles. Better speeds with less effort, it’s possible! Mentally, downhill running can also be a gratifying, more fun experience than suffering on upward slopes.

Does Road Runner Sports Offer Shoes So I Can Crush Hills?

Need some training shoes to attempt your first downhill workout session? Or maybe you need some women’s cross country running shoes to crush your first marathon. We’ve got you covered at Road Runner Sports. When choosing shoes for hilly workouts, especially with mixed terrain, look for shoes that have a durable outsole, adequate cushioning, and elements that encourage a natural stride.

One thought on “Hill Running: Why Incline Repeats Help You Fly On the Flats

  1. Zach Prest says:

    This will definitely be a way that I can improve my running and will make me faster when I do cross country and even in track. I have heard some things that have made me question running but knowing what I am supposed to do when I am running is great. I am new to the sport and I do need some pointers and this was a very good help for me and anyone who wants to run to the best that we can do.

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