How To Use Hills To Improve Your Running Economy and Running Performance

In my last post I discussed running economy as an important factor affecting running speed and performance.  I also discussed one way to improve your running economy is by incorporating strides into your training program.  There are other ways to improve your running economy as well.

Hill Sprints and Repeats Help Improve Running Economy
With many of the runners that I coach, I incorporate hill sprints and hill repeats early in their training program.  I recommend that hill sprints be performed on a hill or treadmill with ~6-8% incline.  I recommend performing hill sprints one day a week for at least 3-6 weeks before moving into hill repeats.  Hill sprints should last about 8-10 seconds and I recommend at least a 2-3 minute recovery period in between hill sprints.  The recovery may consist of walking down the hill you just sprinted up.  You should increase your speed during the hill sprint until you reach ~85-95% of your maximum effort.  You can start by performing 2-3 hill sprints, keeping in mind that these efforts put a tremendous amount of stress on the muscles and tendons.  Then gradually increase the number of hill sprints to 6-10, adding 1-2 hill sprints each week.  Hill sprints can be used early in a training program and continued throughout depending on your running history and goals.

Hill repeats can last anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds, depending on your fitness level, running history, goals, and where you are in your training program.  I recommend that you perform hill repeats at ~70-80% of your maximum effort on a 4-6% incline.  Also, I recommend a slow jog or walk recovery of 2-5 minutes between hill repeats.  You can start by performing 4-6 hill repeats lasting between 30-45 seconds and then gradually increase the time for your repeats.  I recommend performing hill repeats once per week and spending at least 3-4 weeks on hill repeats depending on your goals.

While performing hill sprints and hill repeats, I recommend leaning slightly forward from the ankles.  Make sure you are not leaning from the waist.  Also, use arm swing to shorten your stride and increase your cadence.

How Do Hill Sprints and Hill Repeats Improve Running Economy?
Hill sprints and hill repeats can enhance your running performance by increasing your stride power and strength.  This results from adaptations in the muscle and nervous system.  Basically, performing hill sprints and repeats increase the amount of muscle you use (number and types of muscle fibers) and how quickly you use muscle fibers (rate at which you recruit motor units, which consist of nerves and all the muscle fibers they signal).  Also, performing hill sprints and hill repeats will stimulate the muscle to contract with greater force and help resist fatigue when you are running at maximal or near-maximal effort.  This can beneficial at the end of an event, as you sprint to the finish, or during the event, to help you power up hills.

Hill sprints can also improve “stride stiffness” increasing stability of the knee, hip, and pelvis.  As a result, this minimizes the amount of impact energy lost through unwanted lateral movement at these joints, while the foot is in contact with the ground.  Thus, more energy is transferred to your body from when your foot contacts the ground, which can be used to propel you forward, which improves your running economy.  So, you get benefits not only when running hills or at the end of an event, but throughout the entire event, which can translate into having a faster finish time!

Hill repeats help build leg strength necessary for improving your running speed, and hill repeat workouts are a great way to transition into speedwork on a track, or other flat surfaces.

Other Ways To Improve Your Running Economy
Due to the stress that hill sprints and hill repeats can put on the body, I generally recommend that they be performed once per week.  Another way to improve your running economy is by using strength training and/or plyometric exercises.  This would include performing strengthening exercises for the muscles that produce force to impact the ground, which would include the glutes and quadriceps.  Strengthening the muscles that provide stability when you have one foot on the ground, such as the glutes, lower back stabilizers, and other muscles that stabilize the hips, pelvis, knee, and foot will also improve your running economy and help you minimize the risk of injury.  There is also benefit in using strengthening exercises to improve running economy because these exercises can be performed multiple times during the week.  Strengthening exercises have other benefits as well, but I’ll save that for another post…

If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comments box.

Just a reminder, if you are planning to run a fall marathon you will want to start your training soon, if you have not already begun.  I recommend dedicating 5-6 months of training to prepare for a marathon, depending on your running history, current fitness level and goals.  If you are running a half marathon, I recommend dedicating at least 4 months to train.  If you need guidance and support in preparation for your event, please contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve your goals.

Until next time, I wish you the best with your training.

Brian

References
Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald Run Faster From the 5k To The Marathon

Road Runners Club of America Coaching Certification Course

One Easy Way To Become A Faster Runner

In my last post I mentioned that there are several factors which will affect your running speed.  Some of these factors are determined by genetics and really cannot be changed much.  However, some of these factors can be changed through training.  In the last post I mentioned that lactate threshold, or more specifically, the speed at which lactate threshold occurs is a significant factor affecting your running speed.  In this and the next post I will discuss another important factor which is…running economy.

What Is Running Economy?
Running economy is the amount of energy you consume while running at a given speed.  It’s basically how economical you are in running at a given speed.  There are several things which can affect your running economy, such as your running form or biomechanics.  For many beginner runners their running form will improve the more they run and thus, their running economy improves.  In addition to this, there are several other things runners can do to improve their running economy.  I will discuss one other thing in this post and will continue discussing other things in the next post.

How Is Running Economy Measured?
Running economy is typically assessed while running at a submaximal speed on a treadmill.  During this assessment the composition and volume of exhaled gases are collected and measured, compared with the composition and volume of gases inhaled to get a measure of the amount of oxygen consumed while running at a given speed.  Here is an image of the typical setup and measurement for running economy:

Now you don’t necessarily have to have your running economy assessed.  This would have to be done in a lab with special equipment and can be costly.

One Easy Way To Improve Running Economy

An easy way to improve running economy is by performing strides.  Strides are quick bursts of swift running, generally for 10-15 seconds.  With strides you increase your speed over the entire duration.  Try to stay smooth and relaxed.  The pace that you should be increasing your speed to depends on the event you are training for.  If you are training for a half or full marathon you should be performing your strides at approximately 5k race pace, which for many runners is about 75-85% of their maximum sprint speed.
I recommend performing strides on your “easy” run days, which for most of the runners I work with would be the day before a harder, speed-type workout or long run.  I also recommend performing strides the day before an event, like a half or full marathon.

On the days you are performing strides I recommend that you run for 10-20 minutes at an easy pace and then perform 4-8 x 10-15 second strides depending on where you are in your training.  I recommend recovering with a slow jog for 60-90 seconds in between strides.  Then run for at least 5-10 minutes at an easy pace.  Early in your training I recommend performing strides on flat area, but as you progress in your training you may want to perform strides on slight incline or decline.

Why Do Strides Work?
Strides train the neuromuscular system to perform at faster paces than your event.  They facilitate the development of neuromuscular coordination and efficiency at high speed.  Your body has to become more efficient and economical to be able run at the higher speeds achieved during a stride.  Also, performing strides the day before a high intensity workout, long run, or event will help make these runs feel better because the pace will feel a little easier since you did fast pace with strides the day before.  In addition, strides “prime” or prepare the body, specifically the nervous system, for faster running.  That is why it may also be beneficial to perform some strides before a high intensity or speed workout.  Finally, strides don’t tax the cardiovascular system or the anaerobic energy system, therefore minimizing fatigue.

Therefore, I strongly recommend incorporating strides in your training program to help improve your running economy.

There are other ways to improve your running economy, and thus improving your running performance in 2017, which I will be discussing in the next post.

Please feel free to submit your questions and comments in the “Submit” box or in the “Comment” section.

References
Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald Run Faster From the 5k To The Marathon
Jay Johnson Simple Marathon Training
Road Runners Club of America Coaching Certification Course