It’s often joked amongst runners that ‘hills pay the bills’ in regards to training competitively. Heading into my fourth year of collegiate cross country and track, I can confidently say that hill work was the biggest factor in taking my running from a team-scoring hopeful to a podium finisher at championship meets on scholarship. So yes, hills can actually help pay the bills!
Why does incorporating climbing result in such drastic leaps in fitness? Well to answer that we must understand a little bit about strength work. Strength training exercises build robust ligaments, tendons, and muscles that help to avoid injuries and increase power output. Runners are notorious for undervaluing strength work, as they believe that a dreaded weight room session is the only method of developing key muscles.
Ascending hills, however, combines both the benefits of intense aerobic work and strength training to give you a holistic workout that can lead to rapid gains. You might be asking, how does running hills count as strength work? As we climb, gravity exerts more and more force on our bodies the steeper the surface gets. When ascending steep terrain, we have to lift our own body weight against the force of gravity repeatedly, leading to a resistance-based strength and cardio workout.
My recommendation for those looking to get some elevation gain would be to stick to one short hill, and one or two long hill sessions weekly. For a short hill session, find a 30-50m steep hill and run it in short sprint bursts, about 6-10 times with a jogging rest in between. This will emphasize the strength-building component by utilizing fast-twitch muscles in the upper leg. The long hill session should simply entail an easy-effort run with a few hundred feet of total vertical gain. Do not focus on pace, simply a jogging effort will become surprisingly challenging!
You can start to see significant results in just a few weeks after implementing vert in your routine. Find a trail, road, or even bridge with some incline and have at it!