I grew up in the late 70s and 80s, have been an athlete my whole life and have loved soccer for as long as I can remember. So one of my favorite mainstream media training stories as a kid was the hill legendary running back Walter Payton used to condition himself in the off-season. Search all over the internet and you can find stories about Payton’s extraterrestrial conditioning, how he brought athletes from all sports to training, and how they all ultimately dropped out from exhaustion. He’s one of the most prolific runners in the NFL, arguably one of the greatest of all time, and the hill was his secret.
I’ve been training for almost twenty years and I’m obsessed with mountain running. I owe that to Payton, and since speed is the ultimate goal in all of my programs, hills (or stairs for those of you who don’t have a suitable hill nearby) are an absolute must in any speed or conditioning program. I’ve spent the majority of my career between Cal Poly and San Jose State, and both places have significant hill / stadium slopes that are perfect for pounding my athletes.
Power and strength are crucial when it comes to speed, especially during the acceleration phase. Forty yard jumps, tall running backs shooting through a seam, a batter racing down the first baseline to hit a throw, or a forward exploding to the hole, the sudden surge of speed is the most important factor. It is the first three to five steps that determine the success of the effort.
Check out the NFL combo. When you see athletes running into their 40s, it’s the start that makes a good time the most. Conversely, if you see a man stumble out of the gate or take a sloppy step, rest assured that the time will be less than impressive.
Mountain running teaches the drive phase of a sprint like nothing else can. Because of the incline, the runner has to use the forefoot to climb. One of the most important speed training cues we use is that the forefoot is responsible for speed and the heel is responsible for braking. Even tall guys who, due to their size and tendency to heel contact, come up first when running on level ground, are forced into a “suitable” sprint position. Think of the lean angle that world class sprinters use on the first 50-70 meters of a 100 meter run – this is the position we want to teach and the hill does it for us automatically.
The most obvious benefit is the burden that mountain running puts on its feet. I’ve always thought that parachuting, tape running, and partner hauling were silly considering all of these devices or routines are aimed at taking advantage of time on the hills. In addition to squats, Olympic weightlifting and / or kettlebell training, nothing will improve leg strength and explosiveness like sprinting up a hill.
Use mounds for side applications
Since the vast majority of the teams I train for speed don’t really have the ability to run straight in their sports where they would benefit from on-track training (think top speed), we devote almost all of our time to Change of direction training. Many children have little or no understanding of how to turn. They have no understanding of where their body is in space, they insist on using their toes to slow down, and most of the time they have little control over their swing when running.
Due to the incline of the hill you have chosen, the runner must of course bring his drive foot into a “toe-in” position when climbing sideways. If they don’t, their efficiency will drop and they will almost instinctively feel the need to adjust. When you are on level ground, one of the most important lessons I teach is a subtle toe-in on the outside leg of a turn. This does two things. First, it allows the runner to fully access the big toe while riding. Second, it is directionally in sync with the goal they are trying to achieve. Believe it or not, this is something many of these kids don’t own when they first show up. And what you get when you don’t have this technique is a slow, feeble attempt to redirect yourself.
Next, gravity is a tyrant. The natural slope of the hill requires a very strong push. One that is required on level ground when the athlete is trying to accelerate. If I can get a kid to drag their bum up the hill, either sideways or straight, then they have context and I can get that kind of understanding on level ground.
The benefits of backward hill sprints
Running backwards on the mountain is the perfect way to pound your athletes. The hill I use is behind our sports complex in Cal Poly and is about 35 meters long with an incline of about 14 percent. Steep. We have integrated running backwards into the final phase of our mountain training. Part of that is because I want my kids to be very uncomfortable, part of functional speed for my defensive backs and linebackers, and the other part is that they develop some level of resilience.
When I was in college we had to walk around the outside of the Begley Building at EKU. In all fairness, it was a deliberate way of making us miserable. The slope changes outside were constant and there was a close relationship with misery because we were told to do it for 15 minutes or more without a break. It was a total jolt, but it taught us a lesson – learn how to penetrate pain. Nothing careless, just a burning sensation on your legs that would almost choke you on your own vomit.
The foot drive that walking backwards when going uphill is basically nowhere else to be duplicated. It teaches the kids how to push off the forefoot with whatever they have. Remember that acceleration is in the front of the foot and braking in the heel. The runner trains the right pressure, the right place and the economical use of the feet.
Hills teach running efficiency
Here, too, due to the incline, the runner is brought into a position in which he has no choice but to give everything. Due to the distance, they have to go up a hill, casual jumping or sessified hopping only makes the ascent 10 times longer. Since they want it to be over as soon as possible, you get a natural full effort.
Hopping has proven to be the hardest part for my children. Other things might hurt more, but jumping makes them work as hard as possible, coordinate their movements as efficiently as possible, and their anaerobic energy system burns them up completely. It is a pleasure to watch.
Selected image: KieferPix / Shutterstock