How getting fit in Hong Kong should be an uphill struggle

Few workouts produce better results than running up steep inclines

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 2:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 2:00am

Want to get in shape fast, burn body fat and improve your cardio all at the same time? The secret lies in Hong Kong’s hills. Blessed with a mountainous landscape, this city offers a variety of hill workout options ranging from short and steep bursts to long, gradual climbs.

Whichever slope you choose, and whether you decide to run or walk, you’re in for an efficient, quality workout that won’t cost a cent. The premise is simple: hill running uses one’s bodyweight as resistance, so the body works much harder than on flat terrain.

For runners looking to boost their speed, hill running is a hugely effective method, says Ben Pulham, founder of Singapore-based personal fitness coaching company Journey Fitness, which offers bespoke training programmes for running, triathlon and weight loss.

“In its simplest form, there are only two ways to run faster: increase your stride frequency (also called cadence) or take a longer stride. Hill workouts can contribute to both of these,” says Pulham, a former professional triathlete from New Zealand.

“When you run uphill consistently across a period of time, you build strength, endurance and power. This additional strength then gets transferred through the ground each time you step and contributes to a longer stride length. If stride length goes up and cadence remains the same, you are faster.”

The other way to be faster is improve cadence – running downhill usually increases that, for example.

But the most ideal way to get faster is to improve both cadence and stride length, says Pulham.

“If you can improve both at the same time, you can significantly improve your run speed without having to do a lot of hard, higher-risk anaerobic training.”

The world’s top runners are known to use hill running as a key weapon in their training arsenal. Tegla Loroupe, who once held the women’s world marathon record, credits the toughness of hill workouts in her native Kenya as the key reason for her international success. She says runners in Kenya rely on hills for bodyweight resistance training since they don't have access to special strength-training equipment.

A 12-week study by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that trained marathoners who included two hill sessions a week in their training programme reduced their 10-mile (16km) personal best timing by as much as two minutes, and their marathon (42.2km) personal best by up to six minutes.

“When you run again on flat surface after a tough session on hills, it will feel much easier,” according to an article “Secrets to becoming a stronger runner” on the International Association of Athletics Federations website “Hills also strengthen key running muscles, like the glute, quads, hamstrings and ankles, which will help with injury prevention.”

Walking uphill can help improve strength endurance too, Pulham adds, but running is the better workout, obviously, because it requires more power.

The best technique when running up a hill is to “run tall” with a slight forward lean as you battle against gravity, says Pulham.

“Shorten your stride slightly and lift your knees to take advantage of the additional power generated at your ankle. Keep your torso centred over your pelvis and drive your arms to help propel you up the hill,” he adds.

Coming down the hill, the foot naturally strikes the ground with the heel first. Reach out with the feet and lengthen your stride to gain more ground and prevent any tendency to lean back into the hill, say Pat Tyson and Doug Binder in their book Coaching Cross Country Successfully.

“Leaning back will apply a braking force to the running stride, which will slow the runner down,” they wrote in the book. “Runners should use their arms in a normal fashion but carry them a little lower.”

A word of precaution: running hills places a greater stress on the muscles and it’s not uncommon to end up with very tight quads, calves, butt and hamstrings, Pulham says. A good stretch after your run and using a foam roller regularly will ease any strain.

Pulham also advises running a lot of hills at relatively low intensity. “Intensity also plays a significant role in your likelihood of injury,” he explains. “The faster you run, the more stress you place on your body and the higher the risk.”

But runners have to start somewhere. So look for hills less aggressive gradient and run. As you become stronger, you can move onto steeper hills.

“The more experienced you are,” Pulham says, “the more comfortably you can recover from them.”

Three types of hill-based workouts in Hong Kong

Here are three different 30-minute hill workouts designed by Pulham that can help you quickly shape up and speed up.

Workout 1: rolling hills
Find a course that is consistently going up and down and run at a steady pace for 30 minutes over the rolling hills.

Workout 2: hill repeats
Warm up at an easy pace for 10 minutes. Find a hill that’s not too steep and run five, 45-second hill reps at a steady pace. Use the downhill as an easy recovery jog. Cool down with 10 minutes easy.

Workout 3: hill repeats & squats
Warm up at an easy pace for 10 minutes. Find a hill that’s not too steep. Complete the following six times: 10 squats followed by 30-second hill reps at a steady pace. Use the downhill as an easy recovery jog. Cool down with 10 minutes easy jogging.

A few favourite hills

(Note: a 10 per cent average gradient rises 100 metres every 1km distance)

Mount Butler Rd (from junction with Tai Hang Rd to Radio Station) – 2.5km, 7 per cent average gradient

Mount Parker Rd (from Quarry Bay to top of Mount Parker) – 4.5km, 10.4 per cent average gradient

Mount Austin Rd (from Peak Galleria to Victoria Peak) – 1.1km, 7.5 per cent average gradient

Hatton Rd (aka Morning Trail from Conduit Rd to Lugard Rd) – 1.5km, 12.8 per cent average gradient

Old Peak Rd (from Tregunter Rd to Peak Galleria) – 1.2km, 11.1 per cent average gradient

Wan Chai Gap (from Kennedy Rd to Stubbs Rd) – 0.8km, 20.8 per cent average gradient

Tai Mo Shan Rd (from Route Twish to Tai Mo Shan peak) – 4.5km, 9.7 per cent average gradient

Tai Po Kau yellow trail (from Tai Po Rd) – 8.3km, 2 per cent average gradient