Whether you love hills or dread the challenge they present, hill running can benefit your training both mentally and physically. Hills can be incorporated into your training in various ways, from short repeats to rolling tempos and long, hilly runs. Depending on how you add them, hills can improve your speed, strength and endurance.
Uphill and downhill running each have their own set of challenges. While uphill running feels more demanding both physically and mentally, downhill running can be harder on your body and leave you with a painful case of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) if you do too much, too soon. Plan these workouts strategically so that you push hard enough to see the benefits without causing injury or burnout.
Benefits of Uphill Running
Running uphill has commonly been referred to as speedwork in disguise because hills build strength and endurance while improving your maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) — a standard measurement of aerobic fitness. Even more importantly, uphill training can improve these areas of your running without increasing your risk of injury.
Reduced Landing Impact
Running uphill is all about effort because you are working against gravity. While you will never run as fast uphill as you could on a flat stretch or downhill, you can replicate the effort it takes to achieve faster paces with less risk. Also, uphill running causes you to land sooner as the road rises to meet you, allowing you to reduce your landing impact.
Greater Cardiovascular Exercise
When you run uphill — whether for short repeats or a longer sustained effort — you engage more muscle fibers than flat running and teach your body to produce more power with a greater cardiovascular output. Running uphill also encourages better running form as you lift your knees and look ahead rather than down, which helps you use and strengthen your core.
Uphill Running Precautions to Keep in Mind
Running uphill is beneficial for most people, but runners with a history of specific injuries should be careful with how many hill workouts they tackle. While gradual, rolling hills are typically safe (especially for easy or moderate efforts), hills with steep rises can present a risk for runners who have struggled with iliotibial band syndrome or Achilles tendon injuries.
Variety Is Key
As with anything in training, avoid too much of one specific type of workout. Variety keeps your mind and body happy. It’s also important to train for the course you’ll face on race day. Even if you love running hills, a pancake-flat racing route calls for some flat training, as these routes present their own challenges.
Downhill Running Benefits
While most runners can cruise down a gradual, paved hill with little specific training, steep and technical downhill trails can be challenging, even for experienced runners. Running downhill may not present as much of a cardiovascular challenge, but learning to run downhill proficiently requires skill and strength. Practicing these elements can make you a stronger, more efficient runner.
Running downhill requires an eccentric contraction of your muscles, meaning that the muscle is lengthening rather than shortening as force is applied. Eccentric contractions require more energy and cause more wear and tear than concentric contractions, where the muscle shortens as you use it. The upside is that running downhill requires greater muscular output and can do more to condition and build running strength.
Working With Gravity
By practicing the skill of running downhill, you teach your body to work with gravity instead of against it, and your muscles (especially your quads and lower legs) gain the strength necessary to handle the work. Downhill running requires quick turnover, landing lightly on your midfoot, engaging your core and looking ahead down the hill to help your body make the necessary micro-adjustments to handle the terrain.
Downhill Running Precautions to Keep in Mind
Running fast downhill can be thrilling, but it can also be tough on your body, especially on harder surfaces such as asphalt or concrete. Trails provide a softer surface but can present the added challenge of rocks, roots and mud. If you are new to running down steep or technical hills, start small and build up gradually to longer, steeper descents.
Practice Good Form to Avoid DOMS
Downhill running with poor form can lead to a painful case of DOMS. Good form with quick footwork is essential to reduce the braking impact that typically leads to this soreness. Controlled, repeated downhill training will help build strength and reduce the aches and pains you initially feel from these efforts.
Whether in races or in training, most runners will tackle hills at some point in their running career. While each can be daunting in its own way, practicing both uphill and downhill running can make you stronger, faster and more confident.
Here to Help You Keep Running Strong
Our team at AdventHealth Sports Med and Rehab is here to support you, however you run and whatever your running goals may be. And if you’re facing a running injury, we’ll help you get started with the kind of rehab that works for you. Find our locations near you today.