Running Uphill Benefits – How It Makes You Stronger and Faster

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Many runners I know go out of their way to avoid hills. Even living in a hilly place like I do – where it’s nearly impossible to avoid them – I’m friends with runners who run short routes on dangerous roads, all to avoid running hills.

But they are missing out on huge benefits by skipping hills. They make you stronger, physically and mentally. Plus, they build up strength as well as cardio. Win, win!

In this article, we’ll explore all the positive aspects of running hills.

1. Increases Cardio Fitness

Running uphill has you working against gravity, so you must exert more effort than running on flat ground (which is why many runners hate them!).

Like any muscle, regular hard workouts can help your heart become stronger. The stronger your heart, the lower your resting heart rate, leading to more efficiency when you run.

During exercise, a stronger heart circulates higher amounts of oxygen through the body, helping to increase your muscular and cardiovascular endurance and even improving your recovery time as it brings nutrients to your muscles faster.

2. Strengthens Leg Muscles

As you push against gravity, your running becomes a resistance exercise as well as cardio! Your leg muscles do more work pushing you uphill than pushing forward on flat ground, so you can expect to gain strength in your legs if you do hill training often.

3. Increases Running Speed

Running uphill also boosts your power; the explosive power needed to push you up a hill can boost your speed on flat surfaces. Uphill runs force your muscles to contract and expand with more force, propelling you forward faster.

Moving from a hill to a flat surface feels easier, but because your muscles are being trained to produce more explosive power, you might naturally generate more power and speed on flat runs.

4. Enhances Your Running Economy

If you want to improve how effectively your body uses oxygen and produces energy, you’ll be pleased to know that running uphill benefits you.

A study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance showed evidence that running uphill enhances your running economy.

The study suggests that regular uphill running can increase cardiovascular capacity—how much oxygen you take in—and increase aerobic energy production, helping you to run faster for longer before you become fatigued.

5. Increases Your VO2 Max

Cardiovascular capacity is also known as VO2 max. This is how much oxygen your body can take in and use during exercise. The more oxygen your body can take in, the more it passes to your muscles, allowing them to sustain their effort for longer.

Scientific studies indicate that uphill running positively affects your VO2 max. Be consistent, and you can expect an increase in your performance thanks to a higher oxygen intake.

6. Improves Running Form

It’s almost impossible to overstride going up a hill! You’re more likely to lean forward, take smaller steps, and land on your forefoot. This is excellent practice for better form on flat surfaces.

It’s also essential to focus on your form when running on flat surfaces and try to replicate your uphill form. Land lightly on the forefoot, lean forward a little, shorten your steps, and drive your knees upwards.

7. Can Increase Your Turnover

Turnover is another word for cadence. In other words, how many steps you take per minute when running. As we’ve just mentioned, running uphill forces you to shorten your stride and increase your cadence.

Taking smaller, quicker steps can propel you forward faster. Contrary to popular belief, taking longer strides does the opposite—it can make you slower and increase the risk of injury.

8. Reduces Risk of Injury

Thanks to the rising ground level, there’s less distance between your foot and the ground on each step, reducing the impact on the joints and lowering your chance of injury.

Leaning a little forward reduces the chance of injuries like shin splints by offsetting the load on specific muscles and tendons. At the same time, it strengthens those muscles, making you less susceptible to injury when you’re back on flat ground, too.

9. Burns Calories

Running uphill burns more calories than running on flat ground for the same distance and same pace. This is good news for runners who want to lose weight!

Thanks to working against gravity, you’re recruiting more muscles, and they’re working harder than usual. The calorie burn difference might be small, but it’s noticeable enough to be an important consideration for runners interested in weight loss.

10. Builds Mental Toughness

Running hills can be intimidating! Doing it often can help to build mental toughness for running as well as building physical strength.

Every time you run up a hill, you need to draw on your willpower to persevere through a physically and mentally-demanding workout. Like any kind of training, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

11. Adds Variety to Your Workouts

Hill workouts are a fun way of adding variety to your workout routine! Add a hill workout and challenge yourself a bit rather than doing another flat run on the same route.

These workouts can break up the monotony of a running training plan and keep you from feeling bored and losing motivation. It’s also a great way to continue to train without risking overuse injuries, as it gives the joints a break from impact.

12. Can Lead to Faster Race Times

The combined muscle strength, power boost, and increased endurance you gain from regular uphill runs complement each other to help you achieve faster race times. However, this doesn’t happen overnight—expect to see a small difference over weeks and months.

How to Start Running Hills

Ready to start adding uphill running to your running routine? It’s easy to start incorporating hill runs into your weekly training routine! Always warm up thoroughly, stay focused on your form, start slow and easy, and work your way up.

Weeks 1 to 2

You should already have a decent running base and be running 2 to 3 times a week on flat surfaces before you start incorporating hill runs.

If you’re entirely new to running, use these two weeks to build up that base and do 2 to 3 weekly runs at a comfy pace. Experience runners who have a running base but aren’t doing hill training yet can go straight into weeks 3 and 4.

Weeks 3 to 4

Introduce one hill run per week. Choose a slight hill that takes about 30 seconds to scale. Run at a steady pace up the hill and then walk back down. You don’t need to go all out—just keep your pace steady. Repeat this 2 to 3 times for your first few times.

You should do this on a day followed by an easy run, to give your body time to rest afterwards.

Weeks 5 to 6

As you get more comfortable with hill runs, you can increase the intensity, time, or distance. You might want to find a higher or steeper hill and push yourself a bit. Make sure it’s a good progression from the previous hill and allows you to maintain proper form while still challenging you.

Types of Hill Workouts You Can Do

Hill workouts don’t have to be monotonous. Here are a few hill workouts you can try in your workout routine.

Short Hill Repeats

As mentioned above, these hill repeats need a hill that takes about 30 seconds to run up. You can pick a bigger hill, but try to stop at around 30 seconds.

Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes with some dynamic stretches and a light walk or jog to get the blood flowing. Then get ready for your intervals.

Run up the hill at a moderate effort. Walk back down for recovery. Repeat this process 3 to 5 times, then cool down with a 10-minute jog.

Long Hill Repeats

Once you’re used to the shorter hill repeats, find a longer hill—one that takes you a minute to 2 minutes to reach the top. Warm up like you would for shorter hill repeats, with dynamic stretches and a short walk or light jog.

For your intervals, run up the hill at a steady pace, moderate to hard effort. Jog or walk down for your recovery phase. Repeat this 2 to 4 times and then cool down with a 10-minute light jog.

Rolling Hills

If you live near a place with natural rolling hills, you can take an unstructured run through them. Warm up as you normally would, and then set off for your run.

Focus on going up the hills at a moderate to hard effort and downhill at an easy recovery pace. This is a fun way to explore the hilly terrain and get a hill workout in at the same time! Don’t forget to cool down when you come to some flat terrain.

Hill Sprints

Find a steep hill that takes up to 20 seconds to reach the top. You want to sprint almost all-out—about 90% off your maximum effort—for 10 to 20 seconds in total up the hill. Walk back down and walk around a little until you feel fully recovered and ready for the nex sprint.

Do 2 to 3 sprints if you’re new to it. You can build up to 6 to 8 sprints when you’re more used to it. Don’t forget your 10- to 15-minute cool-down!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.