Into Thin Air: The Secrets Behind Hill Training

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A few weeks ago, Sportscenter spotlighted a pre-season training camp video on "Mount Pain". What is "Mount Pain"?  It's a 45 foot tall hill with 45 and 30 degree slopes on opposing sides. Throughout his 12-year NFL playing career with the Chicago Bears, Coach Singletary used hill workouts to help him become an eight-time All-Pro and ten-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker.  Along with Singletary, other NFL greats such as Jerry Rice and Walter Payton (Above) used hill workouts to propel their games to the next level.  When Singletary became Head Coach of the 49ers, he insisted that the team include hill workouts during their 14 week offseason training program.

After watching this short clip I began to ask myself a few questions.  One being,  could something as easy as running hills improve your speed?  Hill workouts can certainly provide a new dimension to your training  because it helps develop stamina and strength in a cardio rich environment.  Incline work certainly applies a unique amount of stress to the quads and glutes which are primary muscle groups needed to perform many explosive movements. Maybe it can be useful?

So......

  • Stamina- Check!
  • Strength-Check!
  • Cardio-Check!
  • Speed Mechanics- HUH?!

When I dissected the biomechanics behind hill training I began to notice how it instilled the use of proper speed mechanics in order to sprint efficiently.  Below is what I found.

1.  Arm action- 20 percent of your speed is derived from your arm action.  When the players were sprinting up the hill I was impressed how aggressive and well timed their arm action was.  Try sprinting up a hill without utilizing any arm action whatsoever, very difficult to say the least.  So does hill training improve arm action?  I believe so.  When placed in a stressful environment, our bodies perform subconscious biomechanical movements to make the task easier.  In this case, arm action is a part of our subconscious. 

2.  Acceleration Lean- When sprinting an incline, you must align your posture at a 70-75 degree angle (Slight Torso Angle).  This will place your center of gravity (COG) in the correct position for optimal acceleration.  Hill training forces you to maintain this position.  If you don't, you will certainly not be the king of the mountain.

3.  Ground Prep- Ground contact time is key when wanting to sprint fast and efficiently.  If you watch a slow motion replay of a 100 meter dash sprinter you may notice that they are never touching down through the heel.  All of their strength and power is directed through the ball of the foot.  "It’s hard to run fast when you’re running in mud."  When running hills, the grade of the hill forces you to apply force through the ball of your foot.  By keeping your foot dorsi flexed instead of plantar flexed you will decrease your ground contact time.  Dorsi flexion is a very difficult skill to teach.  Hill training may help a "tippy toe" runner because plantar flexion is difficult to maintain when running up an incline.  Talk about a calf workout!

4.  Knee Drive- An aggressive knee drive is essential for optimal speed.  Think, Work=Force x Distance.  When your knee drives are lacking, you are not allowing your muscles to work at their full capacity.  If you only achieve a knee drive of 20 degrees, you are potentially missing out on an additional 55- 60 percent of muscular work.  An acceptable femoral-hip joint angle (Approximately 75 degrees) is needed to unlock an individual’s maximal speed capacity. 

Hill training will not unlock your total sprint speed.  However, it will provide you with a major piece to the puzzle which is acceleration! Implement hill workouts during your offseason training program at most two times a week.  External resistance devices such as weighted vests, sleds and resistance bands can be used to increase the intensity.  Start with body weight intervals the first 2-3 weeks, you will be surprised how your body responds.

"Own the hill, don't let the hill own you"!

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