Reading “up 6th Street” incited fear in my heart and panic in my quadriceps muscles. Surrounded by nice houses and nestled in between two sides of a golf course, it seemed like another innocent street. It was part of my running club’s Saturday long run route which was designed to follow many of the same roads as the Long Beach Marathon. Fortunately, however, this street was not part of the actual marathon route. I’m not sure how it became part of our long runs, but I am glad that it was. The incline is half a mile at most, and it isn’t too steep, especially compared to hills I’ve run since then. Before I discovered my love for hills, 6th Street was a huge challenge, especially with a few miles already on the legs. There was a long run, years ago, when I decided I was going to run up and down the hill five times. The training plan or route didn’t call for this, but I felt so good on the first one, that I decided I would go for five. I became hooked on the lactic acid and yearn for the burn nowadays.
I know where the aversion to running up hills (for most) stems from – it’s painful. The quadriceps muscle group is a huge one, so it requires a lot of oxygen to move the body up the hill. Despite this urgent detour of oxygen, the leg muscles are still a little short on the good stuff and rush to break down glycogen (sugar). The difference in oxygen delivery rate and the rate of glycolysis results in the byproduct of glycolysis, pyruvate, to convert into lactic acid. Lactic acid = the burn. Additionally, for those who do not run them often, the use of different muscle groups and recruitment of more fibers creates post-run soreness. However, the benefits are numerous.
1) The anaerobic work mentioned above increases the heart’s ability to pump blood to the working muscles; the extra effort required to send oxygen to working muscles conditions the heart. Many runners recognize that leg muscle strengthening is a result of running hills, but heart muscle strengthening is also a valuable product. A strong heart makes a strong runner.
2) Due to gravitational forces, the runner faces more resistance in propelling him/herself up the hill. Carrying this extra weight requires greater muscle fiber recruitment which strengthens the muscle. Our muscles work hard to simply run forward, but must work much harder to propel us forwards and upwards. Not to mention, all three of the muscle fiber types are usually recruited and thus strengthened.
3) It requires 36% more energy to run up a hill than to run on flat ground, which means more calories are burned while running up hill.
4) The stride is naturally shortened when climbing and the steeper the hill, the shorter the stride should be. In addition, runners generally strike closer to the forefoot when running uphill as to enhance the lifting and forward motion versus only forward. The combination of a shortened stride and forefoot strike is a much more energy-efficient way of running and translates very well to flat-ground running, especially for longer distances, where conserving energy becomes important. If the hills are part of a hill repeat workout, the downhill/recovery segment presents a good opportunity to open up the stride, focus on a quick cadence and on fluid turnover. Plus, it’s fun to run fast down a hill.
5) In addition to improvements in the lower body’s movement, hill running requires greater engagement of the core muscles. The hip flexors, which (in my opinion) are part of the core muscles, become stronger as they repeatedly lift the legs up, and also stabilize the pelvis. However, they can only handle so much strain, so the abdominal muscles are used to aid the hip flexors with the lifting motion. Keeping both muscle groups strong and taut stabilizes the pelvis and decreases sloppy limb movements, which decreases the risk of injury. Hill running is a great core workout.
6) The more powerfully a runner can push off the ground, the less energy each stride will take, which means less overall energy utilization. The strength derived from hill running leads to better running economy, which may be the most important benefit of cranking up the incline.
7) Arthur Lydiard, one of the first coaches to incorporate hill circuits into marathon training, had his athletes do hill bounds to increase flexibility. Running uphill requires a greater degree of motion in the limbs, which increases flexibility in the hip flexors, the Achilles tendon, the plantar fascia, and other areas.
8) Aside from the physical benefits, hill running definitely builds mental tenacity. Looking up at a seemingly endless climb, or at one which seems looks to be vertical, can be demotivating and discouraging. Possessing a strong mental muscle is just as important as having strong leg muscles. Without the ability to forge on through the pain, the runner will never crest the hill. Running more hills builds this mental muscle.
I discovered some other hills in that same area, so I have a “tool box” of inclines to work with when creating hill workouts. I try to incorporate hills into my run at least once a week and always feel stronger because of it.