Ultrarunners…. hill interval training ... your key to ultramarathon success!!

July 15, 2022

Nick Hancock

I am a MASSIVE lover of hills. I used to hate them but I taught myself to love them by getting good at them!

I’ve left some very good runners for dead on hills because I’ve dedicated myself to getting really good at something a lot of runners hate! In the similar vain as my article on running interval training benefits lets get into a specific modality of intervals... hills!

Navigating the Slopes: Uphill Running with a Pinch of Science and a Spoonful of Humor

Running uphill is a little like trying to ride an escalator in the wrong direction: the landscape is against you, your legs are begging for mercy, and gravity is snickering at your struggles from the sidelines.

Hill work essentially means you're throwing a party where gravity is an uninvited guest, and it’s taken the liberty of inviting your leg muscles for some extra fun. You see, to hustle up that hill, your body cleverly recruits more leg muscle troops to fight off the gravitational party-crasher and hoist you up the slope. Isn't the human body a brilliant thing?

Now, let's talk about the stage setting: the incline. It’s like a slanted dance floor that alters your footwork, forcing you to strut a mid-to-forefoot boogie while loading your calves and ankles with extra weight. And voila! Next day, you wake up with calf muscles sending thank-you notes in the form of soreness. But hey, it’s not all doom and gloom. This uphill dance does gift you with a better “rebound”, and the energy from each footfall is stored in your calf muscles, only to be unleashed as you drive off the ground. A gift that keeps on giving!

Now, here’s the catch. The usual first instinct when tackling an uphill run is to lean into it like you're in a Michael Jackson music video. While a little moonwalk-style forward lean can help, some folks get a tad too enthusiastic and end up looking more like the Tower of Pisa than a pro runner.

This over-leaning brings a bunch of problems:

  1. It messes with your hip flexors' groove. Too much forward lean cramps their style, shortening their range of motion and making it tough for them to bring your knee up during the "swing" phase of your gait.
  2. It tampers with your push-off. Think of it like trying to do a high jump with your body bent in half. Not really optimal, right? To tap into the energy stored in your calves and execute a powerful toe-off, you need to fully extend your leg behind you, best achieved when you’re not doubled over like a question mark.
  3. It throws off your balance. Excessive forward lean nudges your center of gravity too far forward, like trying to do a handstand on a moving surfboard.
Coach Nick on the way to podium in a 50km ultramarthon... plenty of hill interval training was done for this race!

So, what's the secret sauce to maintain form while running uphill?

Imagine you're a marionette with a string attached to the top of your head, pulling you "up and tall". Yes, there will be a forward lean when running uphill, but try to keep it subtle, not as if you're bowing to an audience after a performance.

Keep in mind the mantra, "drive your hips". This mental cue can help you focus on using your hip power to charge up the hill.

Once you've beaten that hill (give yourself a pat on the back), make sure you don’t slouch over like a wilted sunflower. Maintaining an upright posture will help maintain your efficiency not only on hills but also on flat ground.

Running uphill might be a battle against gravity, but remember, what goes up, must come down - and who doesn’t love a good downhill!

An examples of a classic hill interval training session for you:

60 second hard hills

WHAT: 10 min warm-up jog with some drills
12×60 second hard hills with 2 min recovery in between each hill
10 min cool down jog

WHY: To get neuromuscular adaptations as well as mental toughness on the hills. This will also contribute to your overall speed and help to build strength in your glutes, hams and calf muscles!

WHERE: Choose a runnable hill, not too steep, but steep enough that it works you hard

HOW: Run hard but controlled. You don’t want to run out of puff mid-hill. Concentrate on good form, keep your head and eyes up, no slumping over especially as you begin to tire. Good driving arms. Recover on the downhill, walk if you need to to ensure you are fully recovered

Author: Nick Hancock is a UESCA Certified Ultrarunning coach and UK Athletics Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF) and has coached many busy professionals and parents to achieve finishes, top-10s and podiums in events such as London Marathon, Manchester Marathon, Amsterdam Marathon, UTMB, UTS, Centurion events, Endure24, Backyards and many more. Host of the Maximum Mileage Running Podcast and author of the Ultimate Cookbook for Runners

He can be found on Instagram @runwithnick

Now go run hard! And remember, if you ever want to talk about the potential you can reach by taking on the services of a running coach then do get in touch by hitting that enquiry button

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