Why you should make the most of different terrains

Photo by Mitch Mandel

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’ Runners would do well to remember that when considering go-to routes. The terrain we train on shapes our strengths, which is why smart racers log training runs that mimic the profile of their upcoming event. Hills use different muscle groups and movement patterns than flats, while rolling terrain requires your body to adjust to short bursts of uphill effort.

If your runs always follow the same elevation profiles, you may develop imbalances that inhibit performance, says running coach and author Lynn Gray. ‘Runners become better when they can develop different skills and muscle groups,’ she says. Here’s how to maximise the benefits of each terrain type – and how to vary your hill diet for well-rounded running performance.

1/ Master the hills

‘Hills are speedwork in disguise,’ says running coach Nick Welch. ‘Good uphill form requires the same knee drive and arm action you need to sprint effectively, and resisting gravity develops leg strength.’

The workout: Find a long hill that’s steep enough to get your muscles burning but still lets you take a full stride. Run four or five uphill repeats, each one lasting three to six minutes, at the fastest pace you can maintain without losing control of your breathing and form. ‘This builds stamina and strength in the quads, glutes and calves,’ says Welch. Long hills also develop the mental toughness required in racing. Think quality over quantity: Welch recommends one or two long hill workouts every two weeks. (The goal is to add variety, not to make hills your routine.)

Seek other terrain if… You’re due for a recovery run, you want to practise locked-in pacing or you have injuries (such as Achilles tendinitis) that are aggravated by hills.

READ: Make hill running more enjoyable

2/ Go fast on flats

Level terrain may be aerobically easy, but it’s harder on your hamstrings (which perform 40 per cent of the work on flats, compared with 20 per cent when climbing hills). Flat roads or treadmills are ideal for practising good form, breathing and pacing, ‘which is the key to succeeding at longer distances’, says Gray.

The workout: Warm up with five minutes of easy running, followed by two to three strides (30-second bursts of race-pace running separated by 30 seconds of rest). Then run at 90 per cent effort (about 5K race pace) for 30 seconds, at 80 per cent effort (like your 10K pace) for three minutes, and finish with a 15-second sprint at 95 per cent effort. ‘Pay attention to your form and really focus on pumping your arms during that final burst of speed,’ says Gray. Recover with five to eight minutes of easy running, then repeat up to four more times.

Seek other terrain if… You’re racing on a hilly route and so need to mimic that challenge, you’re developing injuries (‘the sameness of level terrain can feed overuse syndromes,’ says Gray) or you’re craving improvement. ‘The power and strength that hills develop is great for getting off a training plateau,’ notes Gray.

READ: Interval training: How it works

3/ Learn to roll along

Rolling hills aren’t usually steep or long enough to truly challenge uphill running muscles or require hill-specific form, so they can’t take the place of hill workouts. But, says Welch, the changing grade engages various muscle groups and tackles weaknesses – which is important whether your goal is fitness or a fast finishing time. Rolling terrain also burns more calories than flat routes. And because it regularly prompts your body to adopt varying body positions and foot strikes, it might lessen the likelihood of injury during recovery and base-building sessions.

The workout: Schedule two to three weekly 30-minute runs on rolling terrain and turn the uphills into repeats: increase your effort on the climbs and recover on the descents.

Seek other terrain if… You’re racing on a course that’s notoriously flat or hilly, especially if your target event is a half or full marathon. You’ll need to log one or two weekly runs (preferably including your long run) on terrain that’s comparable to your race course. Otherwise, you can end up feeling undertrained on race day – just as hills crush runners accustomed to flats, level courses can leave hill-attuned racers feeling dead-legged.

READ: How to run up (and down) hills

DIY hills

Stairmaster: This gym machine replicates challenging hills better than many treadmills. ‘Stairmaster workouts let you practice pumping your arms while maintaining a non-pounding movement,’ says coach Lynn Gray.

Stairs: Outdoor steps and those in office buildings offer enough flights to act as a substitute for hill repeats. ‘Just be sure to keep your arms pumping,’ says Gray.

High knees: Running with high knees on flat terrain mimics the form and explosive strength you’ll need on hills. Start with short bursts (30 seconds at a time) and work up. To avoid injury, drive your arms and make sure your foot strikes are soft.