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Blog Series ‘Hitting the Trails’: Run to the Hills

Blog Series ‘Hitting the Trails’: Run to the Hills

Trail running and D+ (elevation gain) go together like bread & butter. In this second blog of ‘Hitting the Trails’, we focus on hill training. What, how and when?

Trail running and D+ (elevation gain) go together like bread & butter. In this second blog of ‘Hitting the Trails’, we focus on hill training. What, how and when?

Christophe Roosen

Christophe Roosen is the co-founder and coach of Trenara. Runs a marathon in 2:31:34.

In the first part of our series, we focussed on the fundamentals: a beginner's guide to trail running. Now, we'll focus on one of the biggest challenges in trail running: elevation gain, or D+. What's that coming over the hill?

  1. The Impact of Hill Running

Let's start with the what: hill running is a form of running that incorporates inclines into your training routine. Running up a hill costs more energy than running on flat ground – you’re working harder against gravity. And even if you’re running a hilly lap with the same D+ as D- (elevation loss), the downhill energy savings won’t balance the energy loss from the D+.

That energy cost is allocated to certain muscles that will need to work harder compared to running flat:

  • Quadriceps: These muscles work harder to extend your knee with each step.

  • Glutes & Hamstrings: Essential for pushing your body upward.

  • Calves: Provide propulsion and stability.

  • Core: Helps maintain balance and posture on inclines.

Between coaches, there's much debate about the advantages of hill running for (flat) road races. Hills help you to train your muscles, pushing you off, improve your cadence, … BUT the big question is if there isn't a less invasive way to get the same advantages. I believe in specificity: don't train D+ if you don't need them in your race. Don't add D+ during your specific training plan. But do so in your general prep if you enjoy it!

  1. Simulate your D+

Calculate your average elevation gain per kilometer. For example: a 20k trail race with 500m of D+, will result in average elevation gain of 25m per kilometer. Use that metric in your training sessions. During a 10k endurance run, you can add a hill block of 5k with, on average, 25m D+ per kilometer. Depending on where you live, this can be done via hill reps or, just in your route, if you’re lucky enough to live in a hilly place.

Then use that base and develop it further. For example:

  • Run the same 5k block in a 15k endurance run

  • The same 5k block in a tempo run

  • An 8k block in a 15k

  • A 5k block with steeper hills

What if you live where there’s no possibility to run up a hill? Well, maybe you’ll find a bridge you can use. If even that is difficult, use a treadmill and use the incline functionality.

  1. Work on your Technique/Strategy

“It’s just a hill, get over it!” – but depending on how steep and technical that hill is, you might want to alter your approach to it.
In trail running, walking is not a crime. If the hill is too challenging, walking it won’t cause time loss but will preserve energy. So, walking often is the better option when attacking a steep part. Make that decision early enough, so you can powerwalk instead of running and then need to walk very slowly to recover from your running efforts.

When the uphill part is runnable: baby steps with a high frequency, please. Indeed, it’s the same as cycling up a mountain: the smaller the gear, the lesser the impact on your muscles.

Poles will make trail life easier: you do have muscles in your arms and upper body as well, use them! Don’t rely solely on those quads to conquer the D+. I’m a big fan of biathlon, where they combine freestyle XC-skiing with shooting. What I’ve learned from watching those races: pole technique. If the hill isn’t too steep, use the alternating/diagonal technique. It’s similar to running, where there is a natural cross-coordination: the opposite arm moves forward in sync with the leading leg.
When the hill gets steeper, you’ll need to switch to the 1:1 (eins-eins Technik), where you push off of both arms. The 1:1 will produce more support, but is taxing your body a bit heavier.

  1. Descending

Alright, until now we’ve focussed on conquering the uphill parts of trails, but we have to discuss the downhills as well! A lot of us are scared to use the downhill sections to their advance. That often leads to a fight against gravity and thus cramping up. Looks a bit ridiculous: you ran up a hill and now have cramps going down.
The more technical the trail is, the more you’ll jump instead of run down. And while ‘normal’ running is a linear movement, when going down a hill, you’ll often have to switch between left and right steps, activating muscles where ‘road runners’ haven’t heard off. Downhill running needs to be trained as well. 

In any case: keep your center of mass above and not behind you, don’t lean back. Leaning back will put more pressure on your muscles and will increase the chances of falling – leaning back will let you slip of your heels.

  1. Incorporate Hill Running in your Training Plan with Trenara

If your goal is to become a trail runner, adding hills to your running routine is a must. With our 'training conditions', you can easily adapt every session to the specifics of your chosen route. Start by incorporating D+ into your endurance runs (1-2 times per week). Whether you perform them outside or inside, begin with sections ranging from 4 to 6% inclination and then gradually work your way up to 10-12% (if your goal requires it).

As you get closer to your goal date, increase the specificity of your hill training (keep in mind point 2). Tempo runs are ideal, but intervals are feasible too if you find a 600 to 800m long hill with at least a 4% inclination. You can also perform 800m+ intervals, with most of the distance being uphill and the remainder flat or downhill. Check your stats for your total D+ per training week and gradually work your way up towards your total goal D+. Don't forget to reduce the D+ during your taper period!

  1. Conclusion

We hope this post was helpful in highlighting the importance of hill training, how to execute it, and when to add it to your training plan! Next up: the importance of strength training for trail runners!

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