Believe it or not one of the finest training tools isn’t found in the gym or on a track, requires no membership fee and is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Whether mountains or molehills, to increase your leg power and your performance head to the hills.
Even if you compete on predominantly flat terrain, hills can be a valuable supplement to your training program. Hill training is natural interval work. Your cardiovascular system is forced to work hard on the way up the hill and then automatically experiences an active recovery on the way down.
Whether you run, inline skate or cycle, hill training enhances dynamic sport-specific leg strength in comparison to conventional strength training (ie. leg extensions make your quads stronger for leg extensions, but not necessarily for your sport of choice). Hill training also forces your leg muscles to work against gravity which develops a stronger pushoff, leading to a longer, more powerful stride. Furthermore, hill training also increases coordination and endurance.
Research supports hill training’s reputation for building leg power. For example, a study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that hill training has the potential of boosting the leg muscle power of runners by as much as three percent over an eight to 12 week period.
The Ups and Downs of Hill Training
Downhill training is also beneficial, but it requires some practice to master the proper technique and prevent injury. Downhill training is harder on your legs than going uphill in that there is greater impact on your joints. Minimize the damage by neither racing downhill with wild abandon nor cautiously braking at every step. Instead, descend the hills with control, but not rigidity. Don’t fight gravity; use it to your advantage by increasing your leg turnover and accelerating into a flat section after a hill, giving your body a break.
If you’re downhill running, concentrate on your form. Your stride length should be slightly longer than it is on flat ground and your leg turnover more rapid. Lean forward slightly at the torso, keeping your chest high and forward. Keep your hips in line with your torso (in other words, don’t stick your butt out) to avoid low back pain. Keep neck, shoulder and facial muscles relaxed. Land lightly on your midfoot or heel, not your toes. If you can hear yourself clip-clopping, you’re landing too hard. If you encounter a very steep downhill, you may want to zigzag down it.
If, however, downhill running is downright painful for you and keeping you from hill training, hop on a treadmill and raise the incline anywhere from five to 15 percent grade to get similar benefits. Some treadmills even offer pre-set hill interval programs. Simply select a hilly program and you’ll be rolling along in no time.