THE SECRET TO RUNNING FASTER AND FARTHER
Exactly how to use hills to boost speed and endurance.
Hills may loom large and daunting in your path. But take on the challenge to climb them, and you’ll find a more powerful and efficient stride, which can net faster times, on the other side. “Physically, training on hills builds muscle strength, and hill sprints or repeats can improve running economy, which translates into less energy expended over the course of a longer distance race,” says Lisa Reichmann, certified running coach in Montgomery County, Maryland. Coaches like Reichmann have long touted the benefits of hill training, and now, science can back the belief, thanks to recent research by Derek Ferley, Ph.D., director of sports science research and sports performance training at the Avera Sports Institute in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Ferley, a runner himself, always incorporated hills into his own half-marathon and marathon training, but back in 2010, he was surprised to find a lack of peer-reviewed proof of the effectiveness of inclines in exercise science literature. So he fired up his facility’s
research-grade treadmills to fill the gap. In his 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Ferley had one group of randomly assigned runners crank up the incline and complete hill workouts twice a week while another group performed faster repetitions on level ground (and a control group kept up their typical training). The result: Six weeks of incline training boosted runners’ top speed and allowed them to sustain it 32 percent longer than they could at the start of the study.
What explains the dramatic result? First, the intensity of uphill intervals improves your lactate threshold. That means your body produces less muscle-burning lactic acid at the same pace, and you’re better able to buffer the acids you do churn out. Flat intervals do this, too, but with hills, you don’t have to move as fast to reap the same rewards, Ferley explains.
Charging up slopes also asks more of your muscles and nerves than sprinting on level ground, which speeds up the connections between mind and body and makes you more explosive. This ability to summon strength fast boosts how efficiently your hardworking muscles use oxygen to power you forward, a key factor for success.
Ferley has spent the past five years tinkering with duration, grade, and pace in hopes of finding the optimal hill-training formula. While he says he’s not quite finished yet, you can use what he’s discovered already— along with additional tips from top coaches—to take your running to new heights. Here’s how.