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This Is Your Body On Hills

"Hills are speedwork in disguise," explained.

To get faster, you have to run faster…right? Not necessarily. Though speedwork is a highly-effective way to shave seconds off your splits, it’s not the only way. For many runners, speedwork is a one-way ticket to the injured reserve, as bones, muscles and joints struggle to meet the demands of such high-intensity training.

The alternative? Hill running. The concept is summed up nicely by Olympic marathoner Frank Shorter, who famously said “hills are speedwork in disguise.” The adage leaves some runners understandably skeptical; after all, most people slow down significantly on inclines. To run slow to get faster sounds too good to be true. But ask any successful runner how they break through a plateau to get a PR, and they’ll likely credit hill work. As it turns out, your body goes through a series of adjustments as the terrain shifts up, which makes your run splits go down – way down.

Your Legs 

Pay attention the next time you’re running uphill—chances are, you’ll notice your body naturally adjusts your stride to accommodate the effort. Steeper inclines usually yield smaller and quicker steps, close to the ideal stride rate of 180-200 steps per minute. Running uphill also forces you to lift your knees, a critical element of good run form. By lifting the knees, you’re recruiting the hip muscles, which give you more power and propulsion with every step. Running uphill also forces your foot strike to take place directly under your center of gravity, unlike sprints, which cause many to overstride (and get injured).

In short, faster steps + more power + less injury = speed. When you run hills, you reinforce the neuromuscular pathways that make good form a default setting, even on flat courses. 

Your Core

As you run uphill, your body leans slightly forward. To stabilize the torso, the rectus abdominis contracts. The core stability muscles are naturally recruited to keep your back and pelvis straight, and increased pumping of the arms recruit the oblique muscles. It’s not likely hill repeats will yield six-pack abs, but it will give you something better: speed. Multiple studies have found that improved core strength is directly correlated with better race times, likely due to the role of core strength in generating force in the legs over long periods of time.

Your Heart & Lungs

Hills are hard, really hard, and that’s a good thing. The efforts that leave you short of breath improve both your aerobic (endurance) and anaerobic (intensity) capacities. Your body becomes more efficient at taking in oxygen and delivering it to your muscles, enabling you to run faster with the same amount of effort. In one Swedish study, only 12 weeks of twice-weekly hill sessions enabled an athlete to improve their economy by 3 percent, which translated to an average of six minutes off marathon times.

Your Brain

Though the legs, the lungs, and the core get quite the workout from running hills, perhaps the biggest boost takes place between the ears. Running uphill is as much mental as it is physical; rather than mentally checking out, the brain must be engaged to maintain forward progress on the hills. Having such a high level of focus in training will come in handy on race day.

And, of course, there’s the confidence boost—after all, few things feel more badass than summiting a steep incline. Knowing you can do hard things gives you a bit of swagger you can carry into race day. When you conquer one hill, it’s easy to get excited about the next, and you’ll only get faster for it.