Flat Running Is Better Than Uphill Running
Running hills is a very common prescription by coaches for all variety of sports, including running sports. Running is a great enough exercise on its own, being one of the best cardiovascular and respiratory improvers around, so running up a hill must be even better. Or at least that’s the thought behind it.
Since endurance is a derivative of strength, it makes sense that people would believe this. Hill running, like resistance training, plyometrics, or jump training increases your strength and power, so it makes sense to think it would improve your running too. While this is certainly true to a point, a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning casts some doubt on the common wisdom.
In the study, researchers reviewed the prevailing literature on this topic and realized that there isn’t much out there. Specifically, they found only one study, which didn’t examine whether hill running was better than flat terrain running. So they decided to make a study of their own.
The researchers wanted to know if running to exhaustion at an athlete’s VO2max would be improved more from running intervals on hill terrain (in this case 10% grade) versus intervals on flat terrain. They chose experienced athletes, and for good reason. Novice athletes improve across the board pretty much no matter what they do, so the difference between strength and cardio programs would be less significant for novices than it would be for advanced athletes. It’s important to know if the benefit from training holds as acclimations to training become more specific as an athlete improves.
There was only one significant difference between the two groups, and it was a big one. The group running flat could run for longer at the end - a lot longer. The hill group made a 30% improvement in the time they could maintain their VO2max pace at after six weeks, which is nothing to scoff at, but the flat running group made a 60% improvement in the same amount of time.
The reason for this is likely that running flat is less intense. The reduced intensity allows for more training, and more training is a bigger stimulus for improvement to running performance at a VO2max pace than the relatively small difference in intensity, plain and simple. In my experience as a coach, more training is better for pretty much any athletic goal you have, as long as you can rest adequately.
One thing that can be said about uphill running is that it doesn’t have quite the impact of flat running. Because it yields good gains to running on flat terrain it may still be a good supplement to normal running. And, of course, if you plan on competing in any event involving running on hills, the practice is essential, make no mistake.
As it turns out, the common suggestion to run hills even for flat running conditions doesn’t deserve quite the attention it gets from coaches. If you're training to compete, running on flat terrain is better than running uphill.
1. Derek Flerley, et. al., “The effects of uphill vs. level-grade high-intensity interval training on Vo2max, Vmax, Vlt, and Tmax in well-trained distance runners,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27(6), 2013.
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