Elite distance runner and coach Liz Yelling gives us some pointers to make running up – and down – hills a bit less of a slog
This weekend we’re running the Whole Earth Man v Horse Marathon across the extremely hilly Welsh countryside. To be honest, running up hills is not our favourite, so we got in touch with double Olympian and Commonwealth medallist Liz Yelling, who’s coaching a relay team for the race, to get some last minute tips for tackling the lumpy Welsh terrain and beating those pesky horses. Unfortunately, turns out there are no quick fixes but there are definitely techniques and training to help your hill running improve. Wish we’d asked her earlier.
Why is running up hills so much tougher than running on the flat?
When you run up hills you’re working against the force of gravity and you’re getting your own body weight up the hill, so it costs a lot more energy and feels a lot harder. Good muscle strength and fitness will really help.
Which muscles do hills work?
When you’re driving up a hill you’re pushing off the ground a lot more than you would on the flat so you use the calves and ankles more and – as you have to lift your knees up a little higher – there’s a lot more use of your hip flexors.
Going downhill, it’s all about the quads. If you’re not conditioned to running downhill you get an eccentric motion going through the quads and that can be quite destructive on the joints and muscles so it’s definitely worth practicing your descents as well.
Put simply, running up hills is the best way to increase your capacity for running up hills
Are there any strength exercises you’d recommend for hill running?
You can do squats and lunges and weighted gym exercises but the best way is just to get out there and run various gradients of hills. You can run lesser gradient hills quicker, power up short sharp hills to build your strength and then choose some really steep hills where your aim is just to get to the top. Put simply, running up hills is the best way to increase your capacity for running up hills.
What’s the best way to practice hills in training, is it all about hill sprints?
You can do hills in a number of ways. You can go to a hill and run up it and down it a number of times and then jog home, or choose a very hilly route for a longer run and really work hard on the hills during that run. Running downhill can be quite jarring on the body though, so if you’re doing hill repeats you need to be a bit careful, if you’re prone to back and knee problems you’re better to walk down or run off road.
Are there any tips that will help us run uphill?
A lot of it is mind over matter but driving your arms and focusing on lifting your knees will help you get to the top.
If you’re running downhill you want to run like Phoebe from Friends
What about tips for running downhill?
If you’re running down a steep hill you want to run a bit like Phoebe from Friends and circle your arms infront of your body, almost creating a figure eight with each arm. This will give you much more capacity to balance.
If you’re running off road, like in Man v Horse, it’s best to have a wide gait as you run downhill. Placing your legs a bit further apart means you’re less likely to fall over and you can respond better to any changes in terrain.
Lots of great fell runners just drop down the hills and that’s the best way to do it as you’re not breaking against the muscle force and causing lots of muscle fibre tears, but you have to remember they have years of practice. On gentle hills you can just let yourself go but most people will need to try and control the momentum, watch out for changes in terrain and be a bit conservative.
Can you train for hills on the treadmill?
You can but it’s fairly restrictive. I set some of my clients hill sessions on the treadmill that they do on an incline then jump off for their recovery but you can’t really practice downhills and you need to train for that as well so running outside is better.
How should we tackle the hills in a race like Whole Earth Man v Horse Marathon?
During a long race it’s about keeping an even effort, especially on mixed terrain. You don’t want to go into lactate and have to stop at the top of a hill and catch your breath for five minutes. If you can feel your breathing rate getting too high on hills slow your pace or walk to conserve energy so you can run the downhills and the flat.
We’re running the Whole Earth Man v Horse Marathon in conjunction with Whole Earth.