From the ATRA Archives: Kevin Setnes on the benefits of hill training

In this edition of From the ATRA Archives presented by Salomon, 12-time USATF Masters Ultrarunning Champion Kevin Setnes shared his tips for running uphill and the associated benefits of hill training. Kevin’s hill training article first appeared in our Trail Times newsletter issue 25 published in fall 2002.

Hill Running
Hills may be viewed as your worst enemy or a familiar friend that you bond with through hill training sessions. Whereas hills are almost inevitable on trail runs, they are non-existent on the track or on small paved loops in most urban parks. Hills, however, can be one of your key assets as a trail runner.

Since you will encounter both ascents and descents in a trail running event, it is wise to incorporate hills as a regular part of your training regime. Understanding the techniques and benefits of hill training will enable you to get through a trail run more easily and will certainly make your experience more enjoyable.

Kevin on his way to 3rd place at the 2000 USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships.

The Benefits
With hill training you work against gravity. Climbing stairs, walking up a steep grade, climbing a ladder, or running up a hill creates a lot more work for your body. Breathing becomes more difficult, muscles begin to ache from the acidity that is building in the legs, and your heart rate begins to race. These are basic exercises, but put a strain on your system nonetheless.

The benefits lie in strengthening. Strengthening your legs will improve your overall running form says Owen Anderson, PhD, editor of Running Research News and monthly columnist for Runner’s World. Strengthening, specifically the tendons and ligaments, will also reduce your chance of injury in these areas.

“Hill training is probably one of the best single forms of strength training because it forces the muscles in your hips, legs, ankles, and feet to contract in a coordinated fashion while supporting your full body weight,” says Anderson. Anderson also believes that other forms of strength training such as those found in training rooms including knee extensions, leg curls, presses, squats, etc., are the least helpful routines for runners. Anderson continues, “Although it is true that these exercises will strengthen your quads (for example), and strong quads are required for running, the exercises are being done from a seated position in isolation from the other muscles and not with your full body weight.” Anderson has been known to make the statement, “This type of strengthening is fine if you are training to run in a seated position.”

Hill running incorporates all the motions of running and strengthens your leg muscles, tendons, and ligaments in concert with each other. Another benefit is the anaerobic conditioning that it brings. Studies have proven that hill training will adapt your legs to better running efficiency. Studies have also proven that hill-trained runners have higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes in their legs, which allow them to run at higher levels, for longer periods without fatigue.

Kevin (pictured back row, center) as a member of Team USA for the 1997 IAU 100 km Championship.

Types of Hill Training
There are three types of hill training routines — each providing a different set of benefits. One is to run a course that contains rolling hills or very hilly terrain. This is probably the most enjoyable form of hill training and gives you some flexibility in how you run. You can gently run the course (it can be an hour length or longer) and attack the hills, incorporating a little fartlek when you feel like it. You can also hammer the downs to condition the quads for an upcoming event that may contain a lot of descents.

The second form of hill training is to run a series of repetitive climbs that are manageable, yet difficult enough that after six to eight of these you are fatigued, with a burning sensation in your legs. The duration of the hill can be anywhere from one to three minutes. This will build stamina and speed that is very beneficial to a trail runner. After each run-up, gently jog back downhill and repeat the same routine.

The third form of hill training is more explosive. It incorporates repeats of short, yet steep climbs, which will result in more power in your legs. These hills require great arm action and are anaerobic in nature.

Whichever type of hill training you choose and whenever you run hills it is imperative to concentrate on form. This carries over to any form of strength training. Erratic form, especially when fatigued, causes inefficiency and adds to the risk of injury.

Kevin Setnes

How to Run Hills
Running hills correctly can make your next trail run much more rewarding. Running hills aggressively will not benefit you physically in any way. It may offer a psychological advantage to you, but that advantage will be short-lived.

Studies conducted by British Doctor Mervyn Davies found that energy expended in an uphill is not rewarded or gained back on a like downhill. In other words, he was able to calculate the additional cost of running uphill and the energy savings of running downhill and he found that the energy savings on the downhill equaled only half of the energy that would be lost when running on an equivalent uphill grade.

According to Tim Noakes, author of The Lore of Running, running uphill increased the energy cost by about 2.6 ml/kg/min for each one percent increase in gradient. Consequently, downhill running reduced the oxygen cost by about 1.5 ml/kg/min for each one percent of down gradient. Noakes points out that the practical implication is that time lost going uphill can never be regained by running an identical down gradient.

So how should a runner approach a hill? The key is efficiency. Run as efficient as you can and listen to your breathing. Shorten the stride slightly and don’t lean unnecessarily into the hill. This will better enable you to maintain form while going uphill. If you are wearing a heart rate monitor, try not to let your heart rate go up more than 5-7% above the target rate you selected. Example: If you are running at 140 beats per minute (BPM), then try and keep your heart from going up over 150. It is equally important to refrain from charging hills that come up very early in an ultra distance event. The temperature at the start of many early morning events is usually quite cool. You are anything, but warmed up so be careful in the early miles.

Hills are an integral part of running, especially on trails. Through proper training, and knowing how to approach ascents and descents in an event, you can use hills to your advantage.

Editors Note: Does this article make you want to hit the trails and race up & down mountains? If yes, check out our calendar of mountain running events.