Ask the Professional: Hill Training

by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Spring is right around the corner! That means it's time to start thinking about taking your training outside. For a lot of us, the first things that come to mind when thinking about training outside are steady-state running and biking. However, these are far from the only things you can do when utilizing the great outdoors for training. There are things like hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, swimming, sports, or even outdoor bootcamps or circuit style training. One thing I’d like to cover that very few people actually do is hill training. When was the last time you went to your local park sledding hill over the summer and ran up and down it a few times? Possibly never for many of us, but there are a lot of benefits to hill training for everyday life or sport!

One thing that's great about hill training is that there is no one way to do it, making it available for everyone to hill train in one form or another. Even if all you are doing is walking up and down the hill, it will be a greater stimulus than just walking a flat road. You don’t even need to go all the way up or down the hill if you don't want to! You can also run, sprint, or a variety of other speed exercises and explosive movements up and down the hill. You can even split your trips up and down the hill by programming in other movements at the top or bottom of the hill. For example, every time you get to the top of the hill you can do 20 squats and every time you get to the bottom you can do 10 burpees, everyone's favorite! You can do a variety of other bodyweight movements as well, such as push-ups, ab work, lunges, and plyometric jumps.

Hills stress the body much differently than flat land running. If you are running uphill, there is going to be less of an impact making it easier on your joints and helpful for those who may have some achy hip, knee, or ankle joints. Going uphill also forces you to run with better technique and form because of the different stresses acting, forcing you to adjust to the most efficient stride. Hill running is also excellent for building power and strength not just for running but for life as well. A strong base is one of the most important parts of living a long, active, and fulfilled life. 

Beyond all of those things, running on hills is going to manipulate your heart rate much more than steady state running on flat ground. Steady state running on flat ground will likely allow you to reach a certain heart rate and maintain that heart rate for the duration of your run provided you are maintaining a constant speed. On hills, the uphill and downhill portions cause spikes in the heart rate, increasing it, allowing it to return to normal and repeating. It will also likely reach a much higher percentage of your maximum heart rate. These spikes will also help induce a greater amount of fat burning rather than just using up carbohydrates and glycogen stores.

While there is greater overall muscle activation, the greatest increased muscle activation is going to be in the posterior chain of the lower body. The glutes, hamstrings, and calves are utilized to a much greater degree when running uphill than running on flat ground. Especially if you do not have access to weights, running up hills is a great supplemental way to build strength in your posterior chain. In the lower half, most most often want to focus on building their quads but the fact of the matter is that strong glutes are going to arguably have the biggest carryover to overall functionality. They help improve hip extension, stability, mobility, and they help reduce low back stress, reducing the risk of  a hamstring injury. 

If you haven’t considered incorporating hill training into your training regimen, now is your chance to get outside and have some fun! The benefits are plentiful and it is a great change of pace to your typical outdoor workout. So go enjoy the great outdoors and maybe even get a little stronger while you do it!