Hill training is a mainstay of the Kenyan and Ethiopian running regimen for good reason. Running hills develops power and protects against injuries.
“Hill training adds power to your stride and protects against injuries.”
This article covers four distinct hill workouts that improve your performance in different ways to make you a faster runner. But first, let’s have a quick look at the benefits of hill running in general and the proper running form for both uphill and downhill running.
The Benefits of Hill Training (Uphill)
Running uphill recruits more muscle fibers than running on flat terrain. And yet, the impact of the landing force is significantly lower. In other words, hill running builds tremendous running-specific strength with a reduced likelihood of getting injured compared to running on level ground.
This base of strength can then be converted into speed, which is the ultimate goal of hill training. In my experience, a lack of running-specific strength is the bottleneck of most amateur runners. Consequently, they underperform in VO2max intervals despite a solid aerobic base because their foundation of strength — and therefore speed — is insufficient. Hill running also improves stride efficiency.
Hills with a 5 – 10 percent gradient are ideal, as anything above 15 percent deviates too much from your running mechanics on level ground. Run tall with a slight forward lean that comes from your ankle instead of your hips.
The Benefits of Hill Training (Downhill)
Running downhill is the polar opposite that comes with its own set of benefits. Here impact forces are increased due to the higher eccentric loading of your quads. But that also represents an opportunity to fortify your muscles for events on undulating terrain. The key here is to introduce downhill running gradually and at slower paces first.
Downhill running also quickens your cadence. Gravity works in your favor. Hence, your stride frequency is higher than the same effort on flat terrain. An extreme example would be overspeed training. Certainly not recommended for beginners, but it can be a vital tool for more advanced runners.
Running on undulating terrain obviously includes both uphill and downhill segments. So you can pick up the pace on some moderate descents first to give your muscles and connective tissues time to adapt to this type of training. As with uphill running, a slight forward lean from the ankles is ideal. Don’t lean backward; learn to loosen the breaks on downhill sections instead.
Explosive Hill Sprints
I consider hill sprints the foundation for any speed training. If you do your homework with hill sprints in the base period, you will become invincible at the crucial VO2max efforts later in the training cycle.
When it comes to explosive work, more is not necessarily better. The goal is strength and neuromuscular adaptations. That means the quality of each repetition trumps quantity. Hill sprints are short. 50 – 70 meters or about 8 – 12 seconds. Start with one repetition twice a week if you have never done them before. Then add one repetition every week until you arrive at 4 – 8 repetitions, according to your training level.
Hills sprints necessitate a proper warm-up and are ideally included in one or two of your easy runs. You can do them in the middle of your easy runs or at the end. Pick a hill with a 5 – 10 percent grade along your running route and do the first rep with 70 percent effort. Walk back down and repeat the following hill sprints with 90 percent effort.
Why 90 percent? Because most runners get tense with an all-out effort. Hill sprints — like flat sprints on the track — require you to be powerful but relaxed. If you are experienced with this type of training, then feel free to perform hill sprints at maximal effort.
Short Hill Repetitions
Short hill repetitions are the equivalent of 300 – 400m repeats at 1500m race pace on the track. They bridge hill sprints and VO2max efforts by increasing lactate tolerance and improving running economy. Typically this workout replaces one of the hill sprints done in prior weeks.
Find a long enough segment to cover 60 – 90 seconds of uphill running along your route. Think 1500m effort, not pace. Then jog down and repeat 6 – 12 times according to your training level. The cumulative mileage of this workout is relatively low. Therefore sandwich the main set of this workout with an extensive warm-up and cool-down of 15 – 20 minutes of easy running at each end.
This is a hard effort, but that doesn’t mean you should run the repetitions as fast as you can. If you do, this will result in little extra benefit with trashed legs, negatively affecting the workouts that follow.
Long Hill Repetitions
Long hill repetitions resemble VO2max training on hills. Thus, the repetitions are 3 – 5 minutes long at a 5K to 3K pace with equal or slightly less recovery time between efforts. This workout should accumulate about 15 – 20 minutes at or near VO2max with 4 – 6 repetitions. The total training time can approach 1 hour, including the rest intervals, warm-up, and cool-down at an easy pace.
Getting back to the starting line in equal time during the recovery interval is not an option, of course. Nor is it always easy to find a hill that covers a continuous uphill stretch of the required length. But it is good enough to cover at least a sizeable chunk of the work interval uphill.
Closer to your race, VO2max intervals should be taken to level ground to increase leg turnover. The strength you’ve built will nicely convert to speed within a few sessions.
Rolling Hills Fartlek
Running a Fartlek-style hill workout can be liberating from the rigors of structured training. Here you speed up at will on hill segments whenever you please. The effort can entail the full range of faster paces for short durations, but longer segments at lactate threshold pace are also common for this type of workout.
While a fartlek is a freestyle workout, you should still abide by science-based training principles. Use common sense with recovery times after harder efforts and make sure at least half your fartlek is run at an easy pace. You should also bear in mind how this rolling hills fartlek fits into the broader picture of your current training cycle.
Introduce hill running gradually unless you are already used to hill training. Your body gets stronger with hill training but breaks down if the rate of progression is too steep. Even one hill workout a week goes a long way. Ideally, start with short explosive hill sprints once or twice a week and then replace one with the other hill workouts mentioned here.