If you look at the dictionary definition of a hill it's pretty innocuous; a natural elevation of the earth’s surface, a small mountain, but in a runner's world, it can be quite different - a cause of fear, pain and excess sweating; often loathed and avoided at all costs.
As a runner, it's easy to develop a profound dislike of any uphill slope. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked “But how hilly is it?” whilst talking about a run or race, I’d be a rich woman by now. It’s a favourite topic of conversation amongst runners, whether on trails or the road. Race organisers sometimes play on this, with ‘It’s only a hill, get over it!’ signs on road race routes, and Iron Maiden’s ‘Run to the hills’ blasting out over PA systems to get the pre-race vibe going. But whereas fell-runners (mostly) love them (after all, hills are what their sport is all about), the rest of us don’t always feel quite the same about the ups and downs we encounter. Over the years, I have learned to love running on hills, and whether a beginner or a seasoned runner, here are the reasons why I think you should embrace them too.
Hills can be fun - honestly, they can! If you can at least tolerate hills then you will be able to enjoy running in some of the most stunning parts of the country. The Lake District, the Peak District, Yorkshire, they are all packed with hills. The very best views can usually be found from the top of a hill and, once you have taken a moment to savour them, the joy of running down the other side often awaits.
Unless you live in the depths of the Lincolnshire fens or the Somerset levels, hills of some kind or another are pretty hard to avoid; it’s best to get used to them sooner rather than later in your running career as you will have to run up them at some point. If you do live in one of the flattest parts of our country, then seek out whatever slopes you can instead. Bridges, sand dunes, ramps and steps; all can be used to replicate hill-work. Never feel that you have to miss out!
Running uphill is great for developing muscle strength and power. Your leg muscles not only have to drive your body forwards, they have to lift the body higher up the slope too. In short, the more uphill running you do, the stronger your legs will become, something you'll notice when you return to running on flatter ground.
Alongside your leg muscles needing to work harder to propel yourself uphill, your energy systems have to work harder too. As your body becomes conditioned to doing so, the fitter it becomes and the less out of breath you'll be. Not only will you see the benefits of this in your future runs uphill, you’ll see improvements in the rest of your running too. Hill running will make you faster, a bonus few of us would turn down.
Hills can be used as useful in-run recovery time – yes, even the uphills! The longer the run, the more likely you are to see people walking uphill. The slower pace allows your body’s energy systems to regroup (in other words you can get your breath back!) and the change in muscle groups used gives some respite to your legs, as well as your energy systems. Taking walk breaks on the uphills can pay dividends later on in a run, hence many ultra runners adopt a 'walk the uphills, run the flats and downhills' strategy from the start.
Running hills, especially uphill, is a really good way of improving your overall running technique. It’s hard to run uphill with poor technique, so, again, the more you do it, the more this will transfer into all of your running.
You can use any hill near you as an easy measure of your improvement as a runner. Simply identify a starting point and finish, and time yourself to the top, or see how far you can run up before needing to walk. Seeing the figures improve over time is a real confidence booster.
If you train on hills regularly, and improve your fitness on them, you’ll start to pass everyone who still shies away; a well-deserved boost for your confidence! If, like me, you have a nemesis or two, people you often see on training runs or in local races, just the thought of being able to pass them on a hill is a fantastic motivator in itself.
Love them or loathe them, there will always be hills; use them to your advantage and let them help you become a faster, stronger, more efficient runner all round.