Friday, October 15, 2010

5 Top tips and techniques for running hill repeats

This week I’ve changed the focus of my training to more strength related workouts. For the previous weeks, and indeed months, the core of the running I have done has been more slow and steady than anything else.

The results of this have been very pleasing, especially with regards to Cardio-Vascular fitness.  My heart rate is lower and recovery just great.  Where I have been failing is in strength, with legs getting pretty tired on the hilly trail runs.

So I have found a tough section of rocky, dusty, root and branch strewn track which is pretty steep, about 1km long, 100m vertical climb and conveniently 5kms from home (perfect for a warm up). I’ve done a couple of sessions this week (with another planned tomorrow) of 3 and 5 reps. These sorts of sessions really help you work on your strength and toughness, improve your running form and you get a lot of training benefit in a short period time.

I’ve come away with 5 things that have helped me get the most of the training session:

1 Thrust from your hips (!) – This applies to both the uphill and downhill legs, as it keeps your body upright and reduces the tendency to bend forward. Bending forward puts strain on your back, hamstrings and can cause your feet to lose traction, wheel spin if you will. By pushing from the hips you are ensuring that you engage your strong running muscles, your glutes, quadriceps and calves. So you will strengthen all the right muscles to improve and maintain good running form, and ultimately reduce your susceptibility to running injuries.

2 Run Smooth – this is a good general tip, but when running hill repeats pay special attention on the downhill legs. I like to visualise running on a silk carpet and try to land and lift my feet softly. This usually means keeps knees bent and feet/ankles relaxed on contact with the ground. You are trying to avoid the heavy foot fall associated with downhill running, and using your knee cartilage as a shock absorber – a sure fire way to a short running career.

3 Balance – carry your arms out to the side to assist with balance. The steeper the hill (or faster you’re running) the wider you hold your arms. On the really steep sections go all out and aim for the “kid being an aeroplane” style. This is purely for safety and can help recover a stumble before it becomes a fall (and potential tear, blood, break, enforced rest from training, DNF).

4 Have a squat at the top – I’ve found that at the top of a long tough hill my legs feel shot and my stride length is hardly measurable. To remedy this I squat down for about 5 breaths, sitting on my heels. It stretches the big muscles out and I can almost feel the lactic acid being squeezed out of my thighs. I can then stand up and jog comfortably back down for another repeat. Not sure if this is purely psychological, but it seems to work.

5 Don’t take no for an answer! – The toughest part of hill sessions for me is that point when you go around a bend and you see that you’re still not even half way up. At that realisation my legs feel like they are suddenly drained of all their strength and all I have going through my head are words like “tired”, “stop”, “walk”, “weak” and “rest”. I mentally took a step back from this half way up one set and thought why is it that I can feel relatively ok at one point and then without any reason feel so bad – the rational answer must be that it is in your head. When you acknowledge that the fatigue returns to the levels before you considered the workload ahead.

It’s the same reason why you feel like you could do 10 more sets when trotting back to the start, but can’t work out how you will complete just one set on the way up. So tough it out through those hard sets, and remember it is only when you are out of your comfort zone that you are training your body for the challenges an ultra poses.

Happy Running


“You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone” – Percy Cerutty

Training 12-10-2010 (16.9km Hill session on trails)
Training 14-10-2010 (21.1km Hill session on trails)


  1. Thanks, these are great tips and reminders. I believe in hill work. Have a good weekend!

  2. OKay - #5 my favorite.

    Awesome tips. Thank you!!

  3. Thanks Johann, doing hard hills to me means you can cut out some of the heavy mileage, recover quicker, and still get a great training benefit.

    Hi Emz, I did a double session today (10x1km repeats) and #5 was the biggest thing on my mind. I actually concentrated on counting up to 120 in 2's, then 3's, then 4's and so on until I got to the top counting in 20's. It so focuses the mind that I didn't have time to think about the tiredness in my legs.

    It goes to show how much your mind can make you feel more tired than you are, and how much more you can achieve provided you can distract your conscious mind.

    Cheers guys

  4. You are an absolute machine!! How is your knee and have you been doing your physio exercises?!! Not long now until your 100 miler...when will you taper? From your physio training partner...too busy to run..have to do Master's exams instead :(

  5. Hey well if I'm that machine, I guess you'd be the mechanic!! Yep still doing my homework, and all seems to be fine - but then I'm not putting 100miles and 30 hours of running into them in one go at the moment.

    Thought I'd taper from 2 weeks out as I am treating my training much like your exams making the most of last minute cramming!

    Will be doing a long session this week, so that'll be fun, and be good if it doesn't rain for a couple of days as I've only just managed to dry my shoes out!

  6. Gday Andy,

    I have been including a hill session in my weekly schedule. I have no immediate upcoming events, just working on establishing a good level of fitness/strength for races early to mid next year.

    The hill I generally run is about 2kms long, with almost 200m vertical gain, it has a relatively flat section in the middle (about 500m), usually run 2 reps.

    I don't seem to be getting the tired/aching/about to fall apart feeling in my legs which should come with hill training.

    Do you reckon I should be running more reps? faster? or find a steeper hill?
    The training is good, and the hill conveniently close to home (4kms) but I don't want to be wasting my time doing inferior training.

    Any suggestions would be great.


  7. Hi Mitchell
    If you're not feeling tired on your hill sessions I'm very jealous!

    How you train will really depend upon what sort of events you are training for. Hill sessions are generally used for building strength and improving form, although there is obviously an endurance benefit if you are doing multiple repeats.

    It sounds as though the hill you have to train on is pretty good, although the flat section may just be a bit too long and you may not be running hard enough. I would suggest shortening the hill to just the one steeper section, perhaps 800m+ long and run hard on that. Alternatively you could use the flat section as a rest/recovery and then run hard on the steep sections.

    I tend to have 2 types of hill session, one where I just keep plodding up and down concentrating on just moving forward and doing lots of reps consistently (to build endurance and train my mind to keep going). The other is where I really push myself up the first rep and then attempt to maintain this pace for all future reps. This really gives the "burn" feeling in the legs, and I find has a better training benefit. Having this goal time for each rep is a great motivator to keep pushing on matter how tired you are. For those sessions I'd probably only do about 6 reps, by which time my body has had enough! That said the more I'm doing the more reps it feels like I can do (ie the training is working).

    I suppose the suggestion would be to experiment and see what works for you. You need some means of measuring progress, so perhaps you could have a run you do every month as a time trial (doesn't have to be on a track) of about a 5-10km distance. If you're not improving, (remembering to take into account conditions, average heart rate and recovery rates) then it is time to try something different.

    As I frequently mention in my blog, you are meant to get out of your comfort zone and stress your body. My most recent post was specifically about this as it is all too easy to slip into a comfortable training routine, running "junk miles" where really you are not training for improvement.

    It's also more mentally rewarding to go out and give it everything, especially when you do one extra rep than the last time!

    Best of luck with the training, and don't forget to push yourself!