Those that have attended our running program will know how much we love a good hill. It's no coincidence that gruelling sessions on some of Brisbane’s steepest inclines is a regular inclusion to our weekly running schedule. Whether it’s a sprint effort, repeat efforts or long and slow, there are a number of reasons to include hill work to your running plan with a wealth of evidence suggesting it will benefit your injury prevention/biomechanics and performance.
Reduced ground reaction force
One of the greatest uses for hill running is the effect of incline on ground reaction force (GRF). We know from physics that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When we apply this in running, contracting our muscles and putting force into the ground produces propulsion (the action of driving or pushing forwards). Often when we look at breaking down running mechanics it’s how we deal with/absorb this force that influences both our risk of injury and mechanical efficiency. One of the things we know about running uphill is that as incline increases, GRF decreases, making it a handy programming tool to be able to work nice and hard, at less risk of injury.
It also goes without saying, Usain Bolt would not have been able to run his 9.58 second hundred if he was running up a hill. As a result of overcoming the force of gravity as well as GRF decreasing, so too does our total velocity/speed, and the speed of our muscles contracting. In recent years, more research has shown that as running speed increases, so does the risk of injury, particularly in hamstrings as seen here. This could be a good alternative, particularly for athletic population who need to manage volume/ load throughout the week. For example a field athlete who competes every weekend or is returning from the off season might pull up tight and sore from the weekend. Rather than risking injury with high velocity sprints, incline running which could be at the same intensity of effort, but at a lower speed may be a better alternative.
Reduced stride distance/increase stride rate
Another huge difference when running hills rather than flat surface is the effect hills has on foot landing position as well as stride distance and length. A wealth of evidence in recent years argues that forefoot striking whilst running is a way to reduce risk of injury as well as increase running speed and efficiency. This is because forefoot striking places a greater stretch on the achilles during the landing phase, which leads to force absorption in tendons that have the ability to stretch and rebound, as opposed to bones/joints that aren't as pliable.
Uphill vs downhill
As outlined, incline running can be a useful tool to maintain hard work whilst avoiding the looming presence of injury. However it’s important to note that whilst the above is related to uphill running, the opposite can be said for downhill running. When you run downhill, GRF increases, stride length increases and stride frequency decreases and potentially contribute to increased injury risk. We know that what goes up must come down, so there’s no way to do a hills session without the downwards component, however we can cheekily tweak our programming to be appropriate to our population. Things like running up the hill, then walking back down can be a better way of including hills in a training program to maximise the benefits whilst minimising the risk. Periodised and carefully planned programming inclusive of volume and load can also be a great way of ensuring you don’t do too much too early.
If you found this interesting or insightful, our running program is held at 6am Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Get in touch if you would like to become a better runner or join our SOF community as we challenge ourselves at events such as the GC 10km run on Sunday 3rd July. Email email@example.com for more information. The more the merrier.