3 ways to add hills to your diet with professional runner Melissa Duncan

‘Hills pay the bills’ – It’s a catchy and popular saying in some running circles, particularly with coaches, but what does it actually mean? Why are hills important for runners (even if you’re a road or track athlete), and how should you incorporate them into your training?

If you’re reading this, you might be at the tail end of our Red Bull Hill Seekers Challenge on Strava – kudos! Racking up 1,000m isn’t easy, but we’re here to show you how all those hills can take your running to a new level.

One person who had no trouble getting the elevation during Red Bull Hill Seekers is New Balance athlete Melissa Duncan. Duncan, who has represented Australia around the world, is a 1,500m and 5,000m runner – meaning she needs speed and power to make moves in the 1,500m but also has to have the strength endurance to run a good 5,000m time (her PB is a blazing 15:18.43 ).

Melissa Duncan’s tips for incorporating hills into your running regime

© Riley Wolff

Melissa Duncan also happens to live on the outskirts of Melbourne, at the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, where hills are plentiful, and flat trails are an oxymoron.

Let’s jump into 3 great ways to incorporate hills, thanks to Melissa Duncan.

Short hard strides for power

If you’re training for shorter distances, or just want to work on your speed, short sharp hills could be just the ticket.

Hard, explosive efforts uphill are great for building strength, and for promoting neuromuscular development. Put simply, neuromuscular adaptations mean your body can better send signals from your nervous system to your muscles, recruiting a greater amount of muscle fibres. Whether in running or in weight training, the benefits for explosive movements are well documented.

Melissa Duncan taking on Hill Seeker challenge

© Riley Wolff

Ideally, you’re looking for an incline similar to what you might see on an escalator (without the stairs!) and you want an even surface (be careful on dirt surfaces!) so you can focus on pushing hard without worrying about your footing. The aim here is to run hard – it’s a high-intensity effort for 10 seconds.

Quote from Melissa: “I think you need to know the difference between your body being strong but not sharp. I remember one coach who would get me to do 10 second sprints and it was really cool to see how my speed developed quickly so I was able to push myself to the point of lactic. Short uphill sprints teach your body to recruit the fast twitch fibres when needed in a race situation.”

Workout tip: Once a week, and after a decent warm-up, find a solid incline and look for something like 6 x 10 seconds hard uphill, with a walk down or jog down recovery. You’re looking to maintain effort throughout all 6 repetitions, so use whatever recovery time you need to make sure your efforts are at high intensity.

Longer hill reps for aerobic and strength endurance

Head to Falls Creek over summer and you’ll see Australia’s best distance runners going up and down a particular hill over and over again. It has been a tradition for decades, and for good reason.

Running long hills (anything from 1-4 minutes) is a great way to develop not only your aerobic endurance, but also the strength endurance of all the muscles in the lower limbs. For distance runners the longer they can race without their muscles fatiguing, the better they will run.

Running uphill adds extra resistance, meaning your muscles are working harder to power you up the hill. You’re building not only stronger muscles, but reducing your future likelihood of injury as well – how many times have you heard a physiotherapist say your running injuries are due to weak glutes.

You also get a high-quality aerobic workout without the high intensity of going so quick on a flat run. You see, your heart rate will climb higher on a hilly run than it would on flat ground, meaning you can turn your legs slower – which will also limit injury risk.

Melissa Duncan developing aerobic endurance by incorporating hills

© Riley Wolff

Long hill workouts are something you want to do in moderation – no one looks forward to them and you’ll feel the effects the day after, but they’re oh-so-good for you.

Workout tip: You always want to warm up before attempting any sort of workout, so make sure you do that. Then, find a long hill with a gradient of around 4-5%. Aim for 6 x 2-minute efforts, and jog back down slowly for recovery. Your focus should be on maintaining a consistent effort the whole way through the workout – avoid the rookie mistake of going too hard in the first 30 seconds and then spending the next 90 seconds regretting your choices.

Adding hills into your long run

There’s a reason why many of the world’s best distance runners include a steady diet of hills in their long runs. It’s a different stimulus compared to flat running; the inclines and declines will activate different muscle groups that might not otherwise be engaged when you stick to your normal flat routes.

If you’re someone who struggles with boredom on long runs, adding some hills into your route can be a nice change. They give you some markers, or things to check off along the way (and the downhill part is always a nice recovery).

Melissa Duncan chooses regular Sunday runs at Lysterfield – a 1,300 hectare park in Melbourne’s south east that is also popular with walkers and mountain bikers. Duncan explains that hilly runs allow her to get the same benefits as faster runs.

“I love the hills at Lysterfield because they aren’t crazy steep so you can keep rhythm pretty well. Incorporating hills into runs is a great way to get your heart rate up without having to increase your pace which can fatigue your body.”

Workout tip: There are a few things to remember when you’re adding hills to your long runs. Firstly, it’s important not to get obsessive over your pace – you’re naturally going to go slower over hills. Instead, focus on trying to maintain the same effort level as when you’re running on the flat. Second, try incorporating these changes little by little, rather than going from 0 to 100 in a week – your muscles and tendons will thank you for it.

As with making any changes in your running program, you should take it slowly and do it moderately. Everything feels good until all of a sudden…it doesn’t. But if you’re someone who avoids the hilly parts of your neighbourhood, you now have all the knowledge to turn those streets into your training ground.

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