One of my favorite characteristics about the sport of running is its simplicity and its accessibility. If you want to, you could simply lace up your shoes, open your front door, and start running, right from the comfort of your home. You don’t need fancy equipment, an expensive gym membership, or years of specialized schooling or technique. Running is something that all of us are inherently born knowing how to do, and for many of us, once we learned how to walk, we began to run everywhere for as long as we could.
While it’s true that you can start running right outside your front door, sometimes it is worthwhile to make your everyday runs a little more adventurous. You will definitely make fitness and health gains from running at all, but simply stated, you can make more — and different — health and fitness gains by varying your runs from time to time.
An excellent way to become a better — stronger, faster, fitter, and more efficient — runner is by regularly including hill work in your running routine. Doing so can be problematic for some of us, particularly if we don’t live in an especially hilly area, but with a little creativity, you’ll be able to run hills — be they real or pretend/manufactured — in no time.
Below, I’ll describe some of the many benefits of running hills as part of your regular fitness or running routine. The benefits include:
Hills are speedwork in disguise.
Many of my fellow trail runner friends often joke that running hills are akin to doing sneaky bouts of speedwork, and once you do it, you’ll see why. When you’re running hills, especially if you’re running uphill, your body has to work significantly harder because it’s working against the force of gravity. If you’re running on a hill with particularly challenging terrain — like one full of rocks and tree roots, or one that is covered in slick grass or thick mud — your challenge becomes even more magnified. Though you almost surely won’t be able to hit faster-than-usual paces when you’re running hills — and in fact, you can expect to be a little slower than usual — you are still stressing your body in a way that rivals what you’d do if you were running a speed work type of run on flat land or on pavement (but with a minimized injury risk).
Practicing fast downhill running can help with your agility and proprioception and strengthen often-neglected ancillary muscles. If you think running fast uphill is tough, wait until you try running fast downhill! Some race courses are known for being especially challenging not because they’re super steep but because they instead offer tons of downhill. It is really tricky to run fast downhill because we often are quite fearful and timid — rightfully afraid that we will fall off the edge of the world and injure ourselves — but that causes us to plod rather abruptly downhill, putting excessive force on our quads (and slowly destroying them in the process). It takes a ton of practice, as well as a hearty bit of faith in yourself and your abilities, but effective downhill running features more fluidity and less braking. Figuring out how to run fast downhill will also give you ample opportunity to enhance your agility and proprioceptive capabilities and strengthen what I like to call “little ancillary muscles,” like those found in your feet, ankles, or hips, that don’t get especially taxed from running in one plane of motion on flat lands.
You can make hills out of just about anything. For those of us who may not live near natural hills or mountains, there’s no need to fear! The nice thing about hills is that you can make a hill workout out of just about anything. Friends who live in very flat places will often go to nearby parking garages (when they’re not busy, of course) and literally run up and down the parking garage ramps to get some semblance of hill work in. Similarly, other friends will run up and over highway overpasses if they live in an especially flat, urban area. Finally, if you’re a treadmill runner, you can easily create a “hill workout” on the machine that’ll allow you to constantly (and randomly) adjust the treadmill’s grade percentage to mimic what you’d find outside. The sky’s the limit; simply not having access to real hills isn’t that great of an excuse.
Running hills makes for an efficient and effective workout.
Many of us are pressed for time when we workout, but doing something different from a relaxed, easy run periodically may be a better use of your time. Instead of easily plodding along for an hour, what if you broke up your 60 minute run time into a warm-up, cool-down, and sets of hill repeats? There are tons of options here, such as sprinting uphill for a set number of seconds or minutes and then walking downhill; walking uphill and then running downhill as fast as you can for a certain number of reps; or something in between. Again, even if you don’t have access to hills found in nature, you can still manage to create artificial hills and use them to your advantage. Of course, running hills can be a more taxing workout than a simple general aerobic-paced run, so don’t overdo it. For starters, stick to including hills maybe once a week, or once every other week, in your routine.
Hills are effective at making runners stronger and faster over time, and many runners will be delighted to see how their work on the hills transfers over to flat pavement running. Plus, realistically, hills are fun! For those who have access to nature’s hills, you’ll probably be surprised by how much you enjoy the change of pace (both literally and figuratively), and you may even get some excellent views, too. Hills are definitely worth the work, so if you’re not already, definitely consider incorporating them into your fitness routine.