Run to the hills

Why running up and down hills will help you become a stronger, better and faster runner.


by Noel Thatcher - MBE, British Paralympic runner, Physiotherapist

I am a self-confessed hill running junkie.  I will go out of my way when planning running routes to make sure that there are a few good slopes (not always easy when you live in Essex), and I am convinced that my gun to tape win in the Sydney Paralympic 5000m in a PB/WR was a direct result of the 30 consecutive weeks of hill training we had managed in the build up.

Many of the world’s greatest distance running coaches have employed hills to develop their athletes.   Back in the sixties, Percy Cerutty (Kiwi coaching guru, coach to mile world record holder Herb Elliot and to Peter Snell) and Arthur Lydiard used forms of hill training to produce Olympic champions and world record performances. Our very own Seb Coe has often said that he developed his speed and power on the hills of Sheffield and, more recently, Italian coach Renato Canova has incorporated hills into his science-based approach to arguably revolutionise marathon running.

As a physiotherapist, I often use hills as part of a rehabilitation programme as a means of progressively loading calves, hamstrings or glutes/lower back, always emphasising the need to progress cautiously, or, as an easy way of rectifying common technique deficits such as poor hip extension or a “hunched” upper back and “chin poke” which we often see in runners who have desk based jobs. Hill running would also be a good functional progression of my “speed exercises” from my last blog.

Below are some sample hill workouts:

1. Rolling hills

Choose a gently undulating road or trail loop and aim to “push” the uphill and “coast” the downhill without any change in cadence.   The aim is to condition your legs to the change from concentric muscle action, (muscles getting shorter) and eccentric muscle action, (muscles lengthening under load). Take care running down hill not to lean back or over-stride as this places increased load on your lower back and hips. Rather try and lean very slightly forward and land on your mid-foot. Killian Jornet is the master of downhill running.

2. Power hills  

Find a reasonably steep hill of about 100m and run up 10 times as fast as you can with emphasis on your technique. Keep “tall”, with high hips and drive your arms back. Check out Seb Coe in the “Born to Run” documentary for a perfect example of this.

3. Hilly fartlek      

Ideally on a parkland course, head out for 30 to 45 mins and run up every hill you can find!   Try and mix up the gradients and surfaces, altering the pace and effort.   This is a great workout for developing trail running skills and for conditioning your legs in a way that no gym routine can.

Remember to warm up thoroughly and take care if you are carrying any calf, hamstring or back niggles. I look at hills as natural, functional strength and conditioning and if introduced gradually over 6 weeks will improve running economy and several aspects of performance.

Good luck and remember to have fun.

Noel, Noel Thatcher Bio. 


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Discuss this article

I am too a disabled runner and havent been classified or anyything but know which class i would fall into( t46) and i love running 5000 and 1000m but i just wanted to know why Sydney was the only Paralyumpics to have the 5000 in? And im running a 10km in september then im getting back on the hill training 


Posted: 19/08/2013 at 19:09

About to go out running on the hills in preparation for the Himalyan 100! Thanks Noel, good tips and reminders of why it's great to run them.


Posted: 23/08/2013 at 14:17

Just remember not to look down too much while you're going uphill and watching your feet in the woods - I did, and ended up knocking myself out on an overhanging tree branch, landing on my knee [already weakened by something-or-other] and doing further damage! 3 weeks later and I still can't run!

Oh, and look out for roots! They have a habit of jumping up when you least expect it, resulting in a land in the brambles with a stupid terrier looking down at you!

I'm now looking forward to fixing my knee and tackling the hills again, so will be keeping an eye on this article!


Posted: 29/08/2013 at 16:15

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