Adding hills to a running session can bring a whole new meaning to the word exhaustion. Why is it that hills cause some runners to get injured and others not? Matt Phillips investigates

For some runners, hill running is a staple way of developing both speed and resilience but for others, it is synonymous with niggles, pain and/or injury, especially around the ITB (outer knee), calves and shins. Why is this?

Hill running can be a highly effective way for runners to become stronger, faster and more injury resilient. However, as is so often the case with running, it depends on how you tackle them. Certain modifications to the way you may normally choose to run up and down hills can save you from overloading muscles and tendons, crossing thresholds and becoming injured. Let’s take a look at these.

Maintain a high cadence

In running, cadence refers to step turnover, or how many times your feet touch the ground in a minute. Faced with a hill, many runners choose a low cadence, thrusting their front leg out in front of them to pull themselves up the hill. Though this may feel right, it isn’t economical and can cause overload to the hip flexors (iliopsoas), main thigh muscle (rectus femoris) and side pocket muscle (tensor fascia latae). What you should do is speed up your cadence slightly. This will give you a far more sustainable way of making it up the hill.

In the case of downhill running, throwing out of the front leg also happens in an attempt to slow down or avoid falling. Again, this can cause overloading of tissues around the knee. If when travelling downhill you find you are unable to maintain a high cadence and bend your front leg, you should choose a less steep hill or even consider walking down. The costs outweigh the benefits which is why hill training often involves running hard up the hill, then walking back down.

Drive your legs back

Imagine you are running on a treadmill that is not turned on; in order to get the treadmill belt to move, you would have to drive your legs down and back. This encourages us to use the muscles on the back of the legs, the hamstrings and glutes. In doing this, your heels will naturally come up slightly higher than normal, something that makes it easier for the muscles on the front of the leg to bring the knee through in preparation for landing. For any hill runners suffering from pain in the hip, thigh or knee this is a win-win situation!

Keep your head up

Faced with a steep climb, many runners look down in an attempt to avoid psychological defeat. The problem with this habit is it often leads to an increased bend at the waist. This, in turn, makes it far trickier to drive the leg back (see above), leading to a slowing down of cadence, a throwing forwards of the legs, and once again overload of the muscles on the front of the leg. Instead, try focusing on a landmark a few hundred meters up the hill, maybe a tree or a parked car. Set this as a mini goal, then once reached set another.

Use your arms

Your arms work contralaterally with the legs to maintain fluid movement. It’s no coincidence that runners who reach forwards with the leg when tackling a hill also tend to have their arms out in front. A good drill, therefore, can be consciously driving the elbows back, feeling the arms sliding past your ribs as if you were elbowing someone behind you. When running downhill, the arms are also used for balance. The greater the incline and/or faster the descent, the more the arms will naturally move out to the side in order to help prevent you from falling. There is nothing wrong with this – aim to actively try to do this if it’s not already happening naturally.

Practise good form

You can use hills to practise the control you have over your running form. Cadence and stride length do not only change when tackling hills. They also change at different stages of a race, different levels of fatigue, and even with different types of terrain. Learn to play with your body position and movement when hill running, to achieve better control and feedback from your body, something very much linked with reducing injury. The more you practise, the more you will make subtle changes to your running form without even consciously thinking about it, making you a more reactive and robust runner.

Matt Phillips is a running injury and performance specialist and host of the podcast Runchatlive: