Why You Need (More) Uphill Running In Your Life

May 24, 2020

Keeping in shape during the current pandemic is a challenge on many fighters’ minds these days. While creativity is great, it’s important to remember that the simplest exercises are still some of the most effective. Uphill runs are a great example. If you have been doing them already, great! If not, then read on for some great reasons why you should be adding them to your regimen.

Simply put, it prepares your lower body for combat sports better than level surface running does.

Studies have shown that uphill running may recruit your quadriceps and calves more effectively compared to even-level running.[1][2]However, it’s the increased work done at the hip[3]which should really peak your interest if you are an active practitioner.  

To give a bit of background, the ground reaction force (GRF) is generated on your body in opposition to the force you apply to the ground. It shifts with position changes, producing certain movements at joints which then activates muscles to control or counter those movements. You can conceptualize it like this. When a GRF acts at a joint, it causes the limb section “downstream” from it to move towards the same plane. For example, when the GRF travels behind the knee, it causes the shin to also move towards the back of the knee. This makes your knee bend, which then prompts your quadriceps to eccentrically contract as a counter-force. Also, the closer the GRF is to a joint’s center of rotation, the more mechanically advantageous it is for that joint to move.  

Now looking at the diagram above, you can see that the GRF line is furtherin front of the hip center of rotation (symbolized by the dot) during uphill running compared to flat-level running. This means that uphill running is actually LESS mechanically advantageous for hip movement. Your hip flexors would need to contract hard concentrically to drive up the hill, while your hip extensors will contract eccentrically to counter. All this results in your hip muscles getting a more brutal workout for their troubles!

And why should we care so much about the hip? Well, the muscles around it play a huge role in generating POWER in your strikes. Stronger hips also improve general athleticism and may prevent the development of chronic pain issues as you progress in your sport.[4]

It’s probably safer for you

If you are an experienced runner, you probably already know that forefoot striking is better for you than heel striking. It results in less vertical impact forces which in turn decreases the likelihood of you getting common overuse injuries like stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, and patellofemoral syndrome[5]. And uphill running will definitely force you to land more on the ball of your foot.  

There is one caveat here though. And that is, be careful when going back downhill.

As you can see here, downhill running promotes more of a heel strike pattern. There’s also evidence that it takes longer for your knee to reach the maximum angle of bend when decline running[6]. These factors may cause extra stress on your knees and quadriceps, giving you a higher likelihood of injury when compared to uphill and flat surface running. My advice for going back downhill then is to take some of this stress off by leaning your body forward a bit and keeping your knees slightly bent. Use that forward momentum to help propel you down.

Better time efficiency and convenience

The time it takes from warm-ups to completion of a typical hill sprint workout should be no longer than 15 to 30 minutes on average, depending on your rest periods. I personally like to do 10-15 sprints of 5-10 seconds duration each. 1-2 minute breaks in between if I’m going for max effort, and minimizing rest if I’m going for stamina. You get a lot of bang for your buck here, and you won’t have to travel far distances. Just find a nice steep hill and stay there for the entirety of your workout. No need to dodge traffic, animals, or crowds of other joggers (something that is especially important in today’s climate!).

Of course, I am not recommending that you completely get rid of flat surface running. But if you really want to take your performance to the next level, then you have to make incline training a major part of your conditioning work. So the next time you’re driving around town, keep an eye out for nice hills you can use for future grueling workouts. I guarantee that this will become a staple in your training routine!

By: David Liang, MD
Resident Physician and Combat Sports Practitioner



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