The effectiveness of hill running cannot be underestimated – if you’re looking for one workout that makes you faster, stronger, and go further, run hills.
Hill runs were a staple for British athlete Sebastian Coe, who built up strength in his formative years by using a variety of hills in the streets of his hometown Sheffield, England.
Later during his hugely successful career he would spend the winter bounding up and down the steep inclines of Parliament Hill, London, in preparation for the upcoming track season.
Steve Vernon (Twitter: @stevevernon29), a New Balance coach based in Manchester, is a big advocate of hill running and encourages his athletes to run off-road on hilly and undulating terrain as often as they can.
He also points to the use of hills as a reason for the unrivaled success of the Kenyans and Ethiopians in the distance events, “The East Africans have proven that it works“, he says. “They do all their training on rolling dirt roads that are uneven and usually steep. This makes them extremely strong from the feet upwards and teaches them to be very efficient off the ground.”
The increase in specific leg strength that hills develop will make an athlete more efficient as their running economy is improved. Research suggests that this improvement in running economy can improve a runner’s race performances over 5km and 10km.
There are several different types of hill workouts that can be easily fitted into any runner’s schedule, which I’ll detail below. The best tactic is to understand the nature of the hill workout that you’ll be performing, its specific purpose, and the best way to approach the session.
Hill Running Benefits
Regular hill running can enhance any runner’s strength, speed, and endurance and result in significant improvements in race performances.
While many of these are uphill running benefits, there are also plenty of benefits from training on the downhills too.
The specific benefits include the following:
- Improves strength endurance
- Develops specific leg strength (quadriceps, hip-flexors, calves)
- Improves aerobic endurance
- Enhances an athlete’s ABCs (ability, balance, coordination)
- Improves power and maximum speed (short power hills)
- Develops cadence and stride frequency (downhill running)
- Promotes better running economy.
The Best Hill Workouts For Runners
Each hill workout can vary in the type of hill used – short, long, undulating, steepness – small, medium, or high gradient, and the intended purpose of the workout – to enhance speed, strength, or running economy.
Let’s have a look at the different types of hill workouts and the specific benefits of each of them
1. Long hill – the winter is coming
Most runners use the winter to build up aerobic endurance, but it can also be a great time to build strength that will stand you in good stead come the traditional racing period of spring and summer.
There are number of different sessions that you can do.
How To Perform Long Hills:
- First, find a long hill of between 100-200m with a moderate incline.
- Warm-up with around 5 minutes of easy running.
- Run a series of 8-10 hills, with a jog back recovery. When running uphill, focus on an exaggerated knee lift.
Surprisingly when people first start running hills, their aim is always to run as fast as they can to get to the top. However, this should never be the aim and can leave you exhausted, frustrated, and unable to finish the session.
The main purpose of this session is to work on running form and technique by exaggerating the knee lift. Remember it is not a race to the top.
The best way to approach this session is to relax, focus on your knee lift and maintain an upright upper body posture.
You may find that your legs are sore the day after this type of hill run, but this is normal as your body will take some time to adapt to the additional resistance.
2. Hilly loop
Another way of incorporating hills into your schedule is making a hilly run route a feature of either your mid-week run between hard sessions or the long run traditionally run at the weekend.
Pick a route that includes hills of various gradients and don’t worry too much about how fast you climb, but focus on feeling relaxed with the knowledge that you’re not only getting an endurance boost from the run, but you’re also developing specific leg strength.
3. Mixed hills
There´s evidence to suggest that an athlete can get the best gains from running on a course that starts with a long uphill and then includes downhill running and a flat section. A favourite session of some of the top Irish middle distance runners is to run 5 repeats of a 1200m loop that includes all these elements.
How To Run Mixed Hills:
The long uphill at the beginning usually lasts for 450-500m and is then followed by a sharp downhill before the athlete runs on the flat to complete the loop with the advantage of having momentum off the downhill section. The recovery between repeats should be 2 minutes.
4. Continuous Up and Down Hill Running
Another possible session that can be attempted is a continuous 30 minutes run up and down a hill of moderate steepness.
How To Perform Continuous Up and Down Hill Running
- Warm-up with around 5 minutes of easy running
- Begin the hill repeats; the moderate uphill should last around 90 seconds to 2 minutes in duration
- The downhill should be done at a comfortable running pace
- Run continuously for the full 30 minute duration of the session – temper your exertion levels to not have to take walking breaks for recovery.
This is a great session for building both aerobic strength and strength endurance.
5. Speed – spring in your step
Another type of hill session is one where the focus is developing your maximum leg strength and speed.
Find a steep hill, with a moderate to high gradient and perform the following:
- Run 5 repeats of 60 seconds with a jog or walk back down the hill as recovery.
- 2. Take a 2-minute recovery.
- Then run 4 repeats of 45 seconds with the same recovery.
- Take another full 2-minute rest.
- Finally, complete 3 repeats of 30 seconds.
This is a hard session and your legs may feel like jelly afterwards, but it is a fantastic workout to help you develop your maximum speed.
6. Short hills for power
This workout will require you to run explosively as fast as you can, but only for a short duration! It is a way of boosting your leg power.
Find a steep hill and run 4-6 repeats for a duration of 15 seconds.
The efforts are at maximum speed and will therefore require a good recovery of 2 minutes between each repeat.
This is a great session to incorporate into your plan could be built into the end of a tempo session.
7. Downhill strides
Another type of hill session is downhill strides.
This is a great way of getting the downhill running benefits: not only improving your coordination, but it will strengthen your quadriceps and glutes. Moreover, it is a way of increasing your cadence or stride frequency and hence your speed.
The prominent Russian coach Nikolay Osolin found that regular downhill running led to an improvement of 17% in stride frequency. Be sure to use a hill that is not too steep (2-3% downward slope) and run 4-6 repetitions.
This type of session will also help you prepare for downhill sections in any of your upcoming races.
Downhill running at speed places considerable demands on the quadriceps so getting your body familiar to this feeling in training will led to no surprising sensations come race day!
8. Running Sand Dunes on the Beach
The British middle-distance legend Steve Ovett (a contemporary of Sebastian Coe) was a huge fan of the sand dune and he often trained at the famous Merthyr Mawr dune in Wales. His coach Harold Wilson often had him run a set of 10 reps of 30 seconds on the dune and also included some longer sessions of 2-minute efforts.
It’s a great alternative way of building strength endurance in athletes.
Another notable fan of the dunes was the great Australian coach, Percy Cerruty, who was the coach to the 1960 Olympic 1500-metre winner Herb Elliott and undefeated over that distance throughout his career.
Hill Running for Racing success
With more and more of the most popular marathons including some lung-busting hills (Boston has the Heartbreak Hill) and cross country and trail running becoming more common, the experience of running on hills and the leg strength gained from this will give you the edge come race day!
The “Killer Kilometre” race in Derry, Northern Ireland has been a favorite on the local running calendar for the past 20 years. The start is on the flat road outside the Brandywell stadium, home to Derry City Football Club, and after just 100 meters the runners make a sharp left to face the infamous “Southway hill.”
As the name suggests, the climb is longer than most hills you’d face in your lifetime and with some segments at >10% gradient, the race is not for the faint-hearted or indeed the weak-legged runner.
In the legendary race of 1999, it looked inevitable that the win was going to the early leader Gareth McGee who had attacked from the gun, but astoundingly his legs buckled, and he went from 1st to 9th in the final 80m!
Whether you are looking to participate in this famed event or would like to improve your running, hill training should be an essential part of your training programme.