Fri. Sep 25th, 2020

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Get Stronger by Doing the Difficult: Put Hills in Your Workouts

5 min read

Jordan McDougal

I’m a big believer in running hills, whether it means doing hill repeats, or running up short or tall mountainsides for a good distance. This kind of work is another way to give you the legs needed for carrying heavy loads. Some runners and hikers struggle to get uphill and instead stick to flat paths. Many of us avoid hills because they’re hard to get over and require dedication and commitment. Seriously, if there isn’t a struggle likely there isn’t progress.

Ultratrailrunner Jordan McDougal puts a sandbag at the bottom of the hill from his house. He runs downhill, does burpees, picks up the bag and runs uphill-repeating the cycle. I have many good memories running hills up to 2500 feet ft nearly every weekend. Writer Don Tamm and I made some good buddy runs doing 15-20 miles a day the entire summer by doing great training that built up our leg girdle, tenacity and deepened our friendship. We encouraged each other if the other was flagging but stayed competitive as well. Find a friend that is at your ability level. Despite a 10 year age difference we are very similar in build, pace and mentality.

I don’t have a lot of hills outside of my front door and so it means running past the local Wal-Mart and getting into the state park, 5 miles yonder, and so a return trip would be 10-15 miles. I don’t always have the time for a long distance run, so a short, explosive workouts do the trick. We have a lot of construction going on across from my house. There are huge dirt hills ideal for sprinting up and walking down. You don’t need a long path to run up and so 50-100 yards is sufficient. No matter where you are, whether stuck in the city, or on a treadmill or near the wild blue ocean, look to get in a good hill workout. Short, explosive workouts are beneficial to your body.

Los Altos, California
Los Altos, California

1. Try to find a hill with a grade that will test you but not destroy you. As you get stronger you can increase the grade and the amount of repetitions. Go for 3-5 repeats if you are a beginner.

2. Make sure you warm up first. In a 30 minute workout I like to get 5 minutes of warm up, 20 minutes of hard-work, and then a 5 minute cool down. 10-15 seconds of running uphill at a maximum effort should do the trick. The whole idea is to run fast uphill and jog downhill. Give yourself about 2-3 minutes to recover as you jog downhill before you make another ascent.

3. As you run downhill try not to hunch over to look at your feet as you run. Instead look ahead so you can see the path before you. Be alert for debris that could have you tripping. Of course be sure to have the proper footwear. Shoes with too high of a profile might not be ideal unless they are expressly built for that purpose, such as the Hoka brand of shoes.  I like the Hoka brand of shoes but really prefer the Altra zero-drop type of shoe where your calcaneus and forefoot are touching the ground at the same time; this makes sure my footfall is steady whether I’m going up or downhill. Altra models and the Brooks Cascadia is ideal but find what works best for you. There are plenty of good models and brands on the market.

Click to purchase
Click to purchase

4. I don’t recommend doing hills more than once a week unless you’re in great condition. You’ll over-work yourself. Quality over quantity.

If you have additional time then try doing some long hill repeats. This is what I prefer and it will help you improve your running skill. I believe the best is to do 10 x 90 second hill repeats at a hard effort. Again, walk or jog downhill and recover for the next bout uphill. If you get really good at running hills begin to incorporate running downhill fast! Loads of fun and it helps you increase your frequency and length of stride. You ever bomb downhill? It feels exhilarating when you are running so fast. Running downhill is a confidence builder, builds endurance and you will learn to run faster. Be sure to swing your arms appropriately and don’t hold back.

Workouts with hills are good for improving your VO2 max and increasing your muscular strength. Hill repeats are going to work your muscles in a way that doing lunges, squats and hamstring curls never will. Those exercises have their place in the fitness world but running hills will strengthen those muscles that running on flat surfaces never could. Besides benefiting your VO2 max, another benefit is the strengthening of your hip flexors and Achilles tendons.

Another thing I like to do is run/crawl up hillsides of mixed-terrain. Dirt piles, gravel are all things that I will gorilla power-climb. I’m always looking for ways to test myself and to be entertained. This type of training breaks up the monotony of running streets. Construction sites are ideal, despite the obvious hazards, but if they are around my neighborhood I will cut through the lots and get a quick workout. Try 10-20 uphill quick crawls and you’ll find your shoulders and legs tested.

Ditch jumping is a lot of fun and challenging
Ditch jumping is a lot of fun and challenging

Another stupid workout I like to do is jump over ditches. The ditch shown in this generic picture is about 8-10 feet across. I like to take running leaps and jump to the other side of ditches that are wide like this. Even if I miss the opposite edge I’m going to have dirt beneath me as a safety net. Getting dirty isn’t a bad thing. I recommend being warmed up first because you can throw out your back. This is because you will land in a squat position with your arms out in front of your face. Make sure you are properly stretched out before doing a dirt workout like these. Afterwards go home and hose down your muddy shoes.

Don’t be a lazy athlete. Get out there and test yourself.






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