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Ultra Trail Australia | Hill Sprints

In the last blog, we talked about strides and the role of strides in neuromuscular development. Today we are taking things uphill and talking about hill sprints. Firstly, lets recap exactly what we mean when we use the term 'neuromuscular'.

Neuromuscular = nerves and muscles.

Neuromuscular training asks the nervous system to recruit a large number of motor units at a rapid rate, fire muscles at a rapid rate and with lots of force and lastly, resist fatigue when operating at maximal intensity. Put simply, we are asking the body to produce lots of power within a short period of time while staying efficient and controlled. Doing this repeatedly trains the system to become efficient, develops running economy and trains your resistance to fatigue, which are important across all aspects of running.

So how does this help our running? Simple! On a muscular level, when we look at hill sprints we can think of these as a strength building exercise. Hill sprints train the muscles responsible for developing a strong stride. Running uphill encourages positive characteristics of a healthy stride; long stride length and increased cadence are two of the potential byproducts of training hill sprints. More strength and power should translate to faster running on flat ground. The other byproduct of this strength component is you use less energy to produce power, or rather, your running economy (cost of running) is reduced which translates to faster running, for far less effort. Still with me?

It is important to note that the increased loading of muscle and connective tissue also requires a cautious approach to incorporating these into your training. Start out with one or two reps and allow for progressive overload as your body and nervous system adapt to the stimulis, more on this a little further on though.

Photo: Marty Rowney / Pace Athletic

"Can't I just head out the door for lots of long runs?" Of course you can, but it is important to understand that a strong aerobic system needs a strong neuromuscular and skeletal muscular system to support it. Imagine owning a car with an amazing engine that is impossible to drive because the doors and bonnet have fallen off and the wheels and axles don't function like they should. It's important to develop both systems and understand that one complements the other. Keeping your form strong during your long run has a lot to do with how efficient your nervous system is at resisting fatigue and how economical you are. Hill sprints help this!

So what do these look like in training?

As previously mentioned, we are looking at producing maximal or close to maximal power. This means your sprints are short. Start off on the cautious side and respect the principle of progressive overload. After your easy run, find a hill of about 6%. If you're unsure on gradient, find a hill that demands an obvious overload in muscle recruitment when you're running up it. Run up for 8-10 seconds at a maximal or close to maximal intensity. As a guide, start slightly slower than you think to ensure safe acceleration and proper running mechanics. Slowly decelerate at 8-10 seconds and use the time walking back down to recover. Remember, these sprints prioritise developing the neuromuscular system and not the aerobic system, so ensure you're adequately recovered before running the next one. If that takes 2+ minutes then that's how long you should take between sprints.

*Have a peek at Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers doing hill sprints here!

Add these in to your run once or twice a week. If you have no history of running at this intensity then err on the side of caution and build slowly. You should be looking to accumulate just enough time to be both efficient and economical (consistent) in your efforts, so building to 6-10 sprints of 10 seconds should be sufficient as you progressively overload each week. If you have a history of calf strains, speak to your physiotherapist about the best way to incorporate neuromuscular training in your week, to avoid injury.

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