Hill Running

In addition to doing workouts on the track or on a playing field, another option for hurdlers (and sprinters) is to take to the hills and do some sprinting workouts on different terrain. This article will discuss the benefits of uphill sprinting and downhill sprinting, and provide suggestions for how to incorporate hill workouts into the athletes’ training program.

Uphill Running
The primary advantage of uphill running is that it increases leg strength in the sprinter muscles – where it is needed most. The quadriceps and calves gain the most benefit, as they are doing the most work. Also, uphill running forces you to drive your arms more vigorously than you do when running on flat land, which means that when you do return to flat land, the arm swing will naturally be more vigorous than it was before. Specifically for hurdlers, uphill running causes you to lower your center of gravity and enter into attack mode, which is the same habit you want to get into when hurdling. When I have my hurdlers do uphill sprints, I’ll usually have them run up a hill that is challenging, but not too steep – one of a 5% to 10% gradation. I prefer hills somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 meters. I’ll have the athletes do maybe 10 reps, with a jog-back recovery, during the off-season and pre-season. During the season, the amount of reps will decrease, and the speed will increase.

Downhill Running
The advantages of running downhill are multi-fold, but there are dangers involved in downhill running as well. As for the advantages, perhaps the most significant one is psychological. You feel fast when you run downhill, and there is nothing more important psychologically than to internalize the feeling of running fast. In terms of concrete advantages, downhill running helps athletes to increase their stride length, as the hill naturally creates longer strides, which, again, carries over to when the athletes go back to running on a flat surface. Also, downhill running helps to increase leg turnover, as, again, the grade of the hill and the naturally increased speed force the legs to turn over faster. Similarly to the uphill runs, I prefer a hill of a 5% to 10% gradation. Too steep of a hill will send the athlete flying down there so fast that he or she isn’t really doing the work. You don’t want the hill to do the work for you. The primary danger of downhill sprinting is that it can cause muscle tears and strains if the athletes aren’t properly stretched and warmed up. The longer strides and the quicker turnover, as good as it feels, can be a bit of a shock to the system. As for workouts, I generally do the same amount of reps and the same recovery as for the uphill sprinting. I don’t mix downhill and uphill sprinting together in the same workout, because I feel that confuses the runner’s muscles and slows down the muscle-memory process.

Change of Scenery
Another positive about hill running is that it serves as a nice change of scenery from the usual landscape of the track and the infield. The athletes might be running as far and as fast as they would on the track, but the different landscape enables the illusion that it doesn’t feel as far. A few years ago, before the track at our school was rubberized, I had my hurdlers and sprinters do a lot of their workouts on the cross country course. We found a nice stretch of path that had some workable hills. Because my hurdlers were all experienced and didn’t need much hurdle training, we spent most of our time doing uphill and downhill sprints of anywhere from 150 to 400 meters. That season, in spite of the sparse amount of hurdle training, all of my hurdlers ran personal bests at the state meet, and all of them were strong enough to run a quality 4×400 leg. So yeah, I’m pretty big on hill running for all times of year. It should always, though, be done on the grass or a similarly soft surface (such as the compacted dirt that covers many cross country courses), and should never be done on a sidewalk or street. Those surfaces are just too hard and will kill a hurdler’s or sprinter’s legs.

Hurdling Downhill?
I have heard of hurdlers hurdling on a slight downward slope over two or three hurdles in order to mimic the feeling of the hurdles rushing up upon you, but it isn’t something I recommend except for the very experienced hurdler who has excellent technique and an innate ability to adjust speed and tempo instantaneously. I have yet to have an athlete of mine hurdle downhill, so I can’t tell you what it’s like.

An alternative to uphill running would be sprinting up a set of bleachers. The problem I have with bleachers, though, is that the bleachers themselves dictate how long your stride length will be. Whether you take one step at a time, two at a time, or three at a time, still, your stride length is dictated by the bleachers. I like them for off-season conditioning when there aren’t any meets on the horizon. In the winter sprinting up flights of stairs can serve the same purpose.

© 2006 Steve McGill


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