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Strength Training

Don’t Live Near Hills? This Two-Move Series Can Help Flatlanders Get Strong

Here’s how to build hill-running strength even when real hills aren’t accessible.

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All of my usual hill-repeat trails are about to be covered in packed snow and ice. Though I hit the trails year round,  they won’t be very conducive to getting much speed going unless I want to end up doing some involuntary backside-sledding. 

Whether you’re like me and simply don’t trust your foot-eye coordination on wintry hills or you live in a place where hills are inaccessible or just plain nonexistent, there are still ways to make sure you’re ready for grinding it out during hilly runs and races when the spring rolls around. USATF Level II Coach and professional obstacle racer Jamie Brusa shared the two moves she adds to her strength routine to maximize hill strength no matter the terrain or season.

Hill Running Muscle Groups

When you break it down, running up or down hills is really just working against an external force (gravity). To do that effectively, the muscles that you use to work against that force need to be stronger. In the case of hill running, that means glutes and quads.

“The biggest thing for going uphill is having strong glutes,” says Brusa. “It’s important for running in general, but if you lack glute strength you’re especially going to struggle on the hills. When you’re going downhill, it’s really all about your quads. An athlete might not notice it while they’re going downhill, because gravity is to their advantage, but late in a race they might start feeling very fatigued in their legs.”

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If those major muscle groups aren’t adequately prepared for hills, other muscles will compensate to make up for it. That is usually your hamstrings, as well as other smaller muscle groups as your body works to keep you upright and stable. Ever felt painfully tight in the hamstrings after a hilly race, or so sore below the waist that getting out of the car made your legs burn? You might need some extra strength in your hill-crushing muscles.

Building Strength

Brusa ran track and cross country at the University of Illinois, where most of the terrain was extremely flat. In order to simulate the same type of fatigue that comes from running up and down hills, her training integrated two critical exercises: step ups and short sprints. Both should be done after a run or a thorough warm up to ensure your muscles are loose and ready for explosive movement.

Step Ups: These work all the same muscles as running uphill does. Brusa recommends sets of 10-20 per leg (20-40 reps total) on a box or step up to two feet tall. Start with unweighted exercises and work up to holding dumbbells or a medicine ball. Think about having similar form as running uphill: driving your knees up, focusing your gaze forward and keeping your weight balance in the middle of your foot.

Sprints: The timing here is critical: 40-60 meter sprints immediately after completing those step ups, and there’s a reason for that.

“That’s building leg strength and working on efficiency through fatiguing the muscle by doing a strength-based run following the step ups,” says Brusa. Adding some fast running after fatiguing your leg muscles helps adapt those systems to moving powerfully, even when they’re tired.

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Be sure to maintain good form on the sprints, and go as fast as you can without form breaking down. Start with two and work up to four, depending on fatigue. On windy days, Brusa says running into the wind can further add good stress to those muscle groups, further simulating the effects of uphill running. Alternatively, running with the wind at your back can help with what she calls “overspeed training” which builds the muscles necessary for running downhill.

“Any way you can simulate that is going to help you be a better downhill runner,” says Brusa. “It will force you to go a little bit faster than you could on your own. On the flipside, resistance training might help with uphill running. Even if it’s just mentally, that can give you that experience of working against an external factor.”

Brusa credits hill-simulation strength training for her college team’s success on hillier cross country courses. Integrating similar training into your winter routine will ensure that you’re ready to tackle hilly trails — I’ll see you out there once the ice is gone.

Reagan Colyer is Trail Runner’s assistant editor. She lives in the Northern Rockies of Montana and came to the trails after college as a middle-distance track athlete. She is a copy editor by trade and a reader of literally anything.