Hill running

Making the most of Surrey’s hills: The benefits of hill running

Things are beginning to turn colder and at Fitstuff Clinic & Run Lab we’re starting to think ahead to the upcoming winter running events. We’re fortunate that Guildford hosts some excellent trail running, and there are a number of local races that celebrate some of Surrey’s best running routes.

The classic Hogs Back Road Race is coming up in December, and the ever popular Fitstuff G3 Series opens in January. Further afield, Farnham hosts the Tilford Trail Run and BRUTAL 10k in Alice Holt, whilst there are various races in Dorking including the Beat Box Hill and the long standing Box Hill Fell Race and the Maverick Silva Dark Series at Denbies Wine Estate. The list is endless!

St Martha’s Hill

Of course there is a price to pay for all this beauty, and Guildford’s top running routes all have one thing in common; hills. Yes there might be a view from the summit, but to get there requires some serious up-hill running. Cresting over St Martha’s is enough for most of us and the benefits are significant, helping to produce better running form, stronger leg muscles and a more positive mental state.

St Martha’s Hill

Increased running strength and power

For those looking for an alternative to weight training in the gym, hill training is a good addition to your training programme. Because of the added gravity that you work against when running up-hill, the muscles are forced to contract more powerfully. It might seem contradictory, but they’re very effective at increasing your flat running speed and it’s down to the increase in muscle power.

Extended hilly loops in Surrey are also ideal for developing stronger muscles from the increased load and also benefit the hip flexors and Achilles tendon. Stronger quads can help to prevent knee injuries, whilst the increased strength and flexibility that develops in the calf muscles can aid injury prevention in the lower leg.

The improvements extend to your cardiovascular system as well, since your heart rate naturally increases beyond what you’d normally reach on the flat. Coupled with the strength benefit to your muscles this is a great way of improving your endurance and increasing your running distance.

We’ve been feeling the benefits ourselves. Some of our team tackled a number of longer races over the summer including the Dingle Marathon and Giants Head Marathon where strength was definitely needed. Elsewhere we had an excellent time quaffing wine and running miles at the Bacchus Half Marathon at Denbies, which required not only strong legs, but an equally strong stomach…

Reduced impact

Running on hills often means mud. The combination of the incline and soft ground is far more forgiving, and finding this sort of terrain reduces the impact and the repetitive leg movements associated with flat running. Particularly for those returning to running after injury, hills offer a good way of re-introducing the body to running at a steady pace. That said, you do have to run down afterwards! So taking the descents steady can be sensible. Our Surrey Hills host some excellent areas for extended courses such as the Chantries, Puttenham Common and Haslemere.

Improved movement and efficiency

Up-hill running requires a greater degree of control, particularly if done on a wet and muddy trail. Greater attention is paid to foot placement and the leg and ankle naturally springs more as you power up the hill. All this makes for a lighter footed running style which is great for efficiency.

Choosing a longer undulating route will vary ones stride pattern and allow you to become comfortable with different running styles. The key is to keep your posture strong and up-right by keeping the abdominal muscles engaged. Lower down the body, keeping the hamstrings and glutes working helps stop the hip flexors and quads from over-working. Bringing your heel up-behind you picks the foot up more naturally rather than relying solely on the muscles round the front of the leg. James Dunne has an excellent video that describes this in more detail.

One of our practitioners recently put these techniques into practice with local running guide Matt Buck from Running Adventures. During their hill sessions focus was placed on shortening the stride and maintaining a high cadence whilst opening out and relaxing the upper body which made moving uphill all the easier.

Hill running engages different muscles from simply running on the flat, and the smaller stride length increases the rate at which they fatigue as they contract less. Mixing hills in to your running loops helps you become more economic and adaptable with your running form and you’ll likely see a benefit to your endurance as well as the body learns to become more efficient.

It is important however to ensure that stretches are completed thoroughly after a hilly run, since the small range of movement will cause the muscles and tendons to tighten more than on the flat. Paying attention to stretching the hip flexors, calfs and quads is particularly key.

Injury prevention

Whilst any existing injury should always be seen by a specialist who can advice on specific changes to each individual, a period of slow hillier running is often sensible when coming back to running.

This can ensure that a good base of strength is in place before any increases in distance or intensity are added. Coupled with the strength and movement benefits we spoke about above, a runner who tackles hilly terrain can be more resilient and less prone to injury if included as part of a sensible training programme.

Building confidence

It can be pretty daunting standing at the bottom. Guildford seems to have more than its fair share of steep climbs. Yet the more you tackle the easier they seem, and the more prepared you are in the future. Cresting the top as the view opens up is a great feeling and can provide a welcome boost to any long run. Adding in ups to your training allows you to be confident going in to races and be positive in the increased fitness that you’ve developed.

We recently ran the Race to the Tower through the Cotswolds, which at a daunting double marathon was as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Yet drawing confidence in the hill work we had done in the months before paid off on the day. We knew we had that added fitness going in to the race.

Surrey’s autumn and winter running calendar is always packed with some great local races that offer some impressive hills. Running on them however brings a wide range of benefits for both the muscular and cardiovascular system.

Look out for us in the coming months as we’re often at local races offering sports massages afterwards – we’d love for you to come and say hello. Whether out at events or at our Guildford clinic, our approach is friendly and professional, and our expertise in injury prevention, rehabilitation, sports massage and running technique means we can assist a wide range of sports in Guildford.