Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Hills. Love them or hate them, there is no denying that they are a powerful tool in your training arsenal. Whether your cardio is walking, running or cycling (or a combination) there are many benefits to adding a hilly terrain to your training.
Hills add resistance. You're having to carry your weight against gravity, increase the slope, increase the resistance. Therefore your muscles are having to work harder to get you from Point A at the bottom to Point B at the top. The end result.....your muscles increase their strength.
Want to increase the distance or the time that you can exercise for? Don't have the time to spend every training session exercising for long periods? Then hill sessions are a great answer to this conundrum.
Hills are hard work! Your heart has to work harder to pump oxygenated blood and glucose to your muscles and remove the waste products of respiration. Regular hill training allows for your body to adapt to make this process more efficient and improve your overall endurance as a result. In short, you will be able to work harder for longer. It's a really effective training tool to improve distance or if you are training for a sport.
The best thing is that you can include hills as part of your normal walk/run/cycle or you can dedicate a specific session to fast intervals using hills, but the sessions don't need to be lengthy to gain the benefits.
Improved Speed and Endurance
Including short but faster than your normal pace intervals uphill is a great way to improve speed and acceleration. Again the increased resistance, means that your body makes adaptations accordingly, in this case it improves the recruitment of fast twitch fibres and motor units. Once back on the flat you should find that these adaptations improve your overall speed.
Building mental strength
Hills are tough! You stand at the bottom and look up and you can feel the sense of dread coming over you. 'How am I going to get up there?' 'Maybe I will just do a couple of repeats.' Nothing beats the sense of achievement of breaking down these mental barriers and driving your body towards the summit! Even if there is no view to admire at the top. The best thing about that achievement is that it can give you confidence in smashing goals in other areas of your life too! So let's keep that positive mental attitude.
This one comes with a caveat. Like with all training - if its new to you, start slow and ease yourself in. Completing 30 minutes of hill sprints if you've never attempted it before is a sure fire way of giving yourself an injury rather than preventing one.
The impact of walking or running uphill is less than on the flat, so uphill running is particularly good if you're prone to shin splints. Be careful though to watch the impact that you're putting through your body when running downhill and again if new to hills you might want to consider slowing down or walking downhill.
All that extra strength and endurance that your hill sessions have also created will also mean that your body is better conditioned for normal flat walking/running/cycling, reducing the incidence of injury.
Increased Calorie Burn
If you are looking to control your weight and looking for an exercise that increases calorie burn then consider adding hilly terrain into your regular workouts. As previously discussed, hills increase how hard the body has to work and this means that it requires more energy. The end result is that you'll burn more calories in the same time as on the flat.
Padulo J, Powell D, Milia R, Ardigo LP (2013): A paradigm of uphill running, PLoS ONE 8(7): e69006
Gottschall JS, Kram R (2005) Ground reaction forces during downhill and uphill running. Journal of biomechanics 38(3): 445 - 52