How To Perform Hill Sprints: Every Runner’s Secret Weapon

Running hill sprints is like strapping a stick of dynamite to a regular speed workout – not only are you doing sprint intervals, but you’re combining that with hill work.

It’s a totally different training workout for most of us distance runners. While we are typically accustomed to steady-state, low-to-mid exertion level running, hill sprints are short and fast.

You can complete a good hill sprint session in just 20 minutes – but be aware that you’re going to feel every single one of those minutes!

And while they’re intense, the payoff from hill sprints is impossible to ignore.

The benefits of hill sprints include:

  • Improve your running economy (think ‘miles per gallon‘ for running)

  • Build muscle – making you more powerful and improving muscle connectivity tissues

  • Improve your cardiovascular fitness, boosting your VO2 max (they are essentially HIIT workouts)

  • Make you more injury-proof!

The benefits of hill sprints actually mirror that of resistance or strength training, i.e. leg day at the gym.

The big difference is that hill sprints are discipline-specific – in other words, they target the muscles used specfically when running.

Another benefit of hill sprints is that they provide a mental break from regular run training – and can be effective to burn fat too!

Distance runners always run the risk of developing a plodding rhythm – running for hours at the same sustainable pace definitely has some drawwbacks.

It’s something I’ve experienced myself – when I first scaled back from long distance to shorter distance training runs like 5k’s, I struggled to snap out of my long distance relaxed pace.

I’ve found hill sprints to be the perfect remedy for regaining my running speed.

I’ve noticed huge gains in my 5k and 10k times , and seen massive improvements in my Cooper Test results since introducing hill sprints into my routine, and love the feeling of explosive power they give me!

What Are Hill Sprints?

Hill sprints are essentially a form of interval training – probably one of the more intense (but engaging) options.

You find a suitable hill and do a few reps of sprinting up the hill, followed by lightly jogging back down the hill (recovery).

Like other forms of interval training, hill sprinting introduces stressors (loads on your body) – in this case, the intense pace and the climb – to your body for a short time, then allows it to recover before repeating the same thing again.

related: The Incredible Benefits of Sprinting

Hill sprints are usually done on a relatively short – but fairly steep – hill, and it’s typical to do between 4 and 10 reps total – depending on your ability level.

But we’ll get into the details in a second.

First let’s look at the common mistakes people make when doing hill sprints:

hill sprints how to

The Top Hill Sprint Mistakes

Mistake #1 – Getting Hung Up On Hill Details

When you check online for ‘how to do hill sprints‘, you’ll often find running coaches being pretty specific about things like the gradient of the hill you should be running, sprint speed, and interval length.

I’m a big believer that hill sprints don’t need to be too prescriptive.

It often makes sense to adapt your plan based on whatever hill you happen to have near your home, rather than getting hung up on finding ‘the perfect hill’ that matches some arbitrary numbers.

After all, the more convenient the workout is, the more likely you’ll be to repeat it.

Below I’m going to spell out my hill sprinting method, which is designed to be adapted to a variety of hill conditions.

Mistake #2 – Going Too Steep

I love gunning it up a steep hill, pushing myself to my limits as I near the summit.

But when it comes to hill sprints, there is such a thing as a hill that’s too steep. Once a gradient is higher than around 15-20%, you’re no longer sprinting as you regularly would.

The steepness causes your gait to change into more of a climber style – requiring pronounced leg raises – which inevitably slows you down and changes how you’re running.

Don’t get too hung up on gradient – find one that feels steep, but doesn’t feel like a climb (max out at 15 – 20%).

Mistake #3 – Measuring Your Speed

Hill sprints are all about running hard, then running easy.

A classic Strava-addict question is “but how fast should my uphill intervals be?

Here’s the answer: forget about your speed.

Every hill, every day, every interval will be a different speed.

Not only that, but trying to accurately measure your moving speed when sprinting over a very short interval is hard to do – it’s likely your GPS will take a second to figure out that you’re sprinting, and then trying to read your GPS watch while you’re meant to be sprinting all-out is just a bit…besides the point.

So instead of running to a specific speed, run to a Rate of Perceived Exertion.

When you’re battling your way up hill, you should be sprinting at a 9+ out of 10.

rate of perceived exertion

This means you’re pushing practically as hard as you can, only saving enough energy in the tank so you can complete the interval.

You should be breathless, all-in, and not able to say more than a couple of words.

When you are recovering and running back downhill, you should dial down your efforts to as slow as possible; aim for an RPE of 1-2 out of 10.

The idea is to maintain a very easy jogging gait, as opposed to walking down the hill.

Mistake #4 – Choosing Tough Terrain

Hill sprints are best done on tracks, roads, and smooth trails.

Don’t try and do your hill repeats on a technical trail – having to navigate rough terrain and choose your steps just adds unnecessary complexity and will likely slow you down.

Hill sprints are designed to be run as fast as you can – so find a suitable route that is as easy underfoot as possible.

hill sprints how to

How To Do Hill Sprints

Step #1: The Warm-up

Prior to doing any sprinting, we’ve got to get our bodies warmed up and limber.

Spend around 5 minutes running at an easy, relaxed pace to loosen things up and get ready for the sprints.

Finish your warm-up at the bottom of the hill – ready for your first sprint!

Step #2: Find The Right Hill

The most important element of hill sprinting is, of course, the hill!

The ideal hill should have a section of at least 80-100m of fairly consistent climb for you to train on.

In terms of gradient, you want to find something that feels challenging, but that you can actually sprint up for a 10-15 second burst.

If you’re new to hill running, this might be a beginning gradient of around 6-8%; once you’re more accustomed to hill sprints, you can hit gradients of 10-20%.

running gradients hill sprints
source: Wikimedia commons

Side note, quick explainer on gradients: a hill’s gradient is the % of vertical gain per unit of horizontal gain.

So if a hill has one meter of vertical increase for every 10 meters of horizontal distance, this is a 10% gradient.

While a 10% gradient doesn’t look like much on the chart here, it certainly feels like a lot when you’re running up it!

Step #3: Sprint Up The Hill

Now the fun begins!

Sprint up the hill at an all-out rate of perceived exertion, aiming for 9+ out of 10 in terms of effort.

Aim to sprint for around 10 seconds when you start out with hill sprints, and gradually increase the sprint interval as you get more comfortable.

You should reach a point of breathlessness by the end of your sprint, and be unable to say more than a couple of words.

Note: on your first rep, you might want to pay more attention to your body – if something feels out of place, dial things back until you’re sprinting gait is bedded in properly.

Step # 4 – Recover

When you reach the end of your sprint interval, turn around and start heading back down the hill.

If at all possible, try to maintain a very light jog. Sometimes this simply is too much, and you need to slow to a walk for a few seconds in order to recover – that’s totally fine.

This part of the repeat is all about the recovery, after all.

You want to take as long as you need so that you can repeat the sprint to the same intensity – for some runners, by the time you reach the bottom of the hill you’ll be ready to go. Others will want to take a couple of minutes to catch their breath.

Don’t worry if you need an extended rest break between sprint intervals – the more frequently you do hill sprints, the more you’ll see this ‘downtime’ length reduce.

Step #5 – Repeat

Once you have recovered enough, go again.

Sprint to the same level of intensity (9+ out of 10) that you did on your previous attempt.

When you start off with hill sprints, doing 3-4 reps is plenty.

With each session you can add 1-2 reps – just listen to your body, and only add reps when you feel capable.

Step #6 – Warm Down

Try not to finish your workout on a sprint.

After your last sprint, take the time for another recovery window, then feel free to run gently for another 5 minutes until you feel your breathing is back to normal.

How Often To Do Hill Sprints?

Hill sprints stress your leg muscles in new and challenging ways, so it’s necessary to leave a few days for recovery.

If you’re following a busy training schedule like a marathon training plan, then one hill sprint session per week is likely all you need – your body is being taxed with all your other run workouts, so overloading it with more than 1 hill sprint session will likely no t yield any benefits.

If you’re in your off-season or simply not in active training, you can do 2 x hill sprint sessions a week, evenly spaced apart.

How I Do Hill Sprint Sessions + Some Practical Tips

As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to not get too hung up on finding the perfect hill when doing hill sprints.

It just so happens I’ve got an awesome hill on the street next to my house; we’ve got around 300m of a gentle 3-4% gradient, then around 50m of steep 13% gradient.

So I’ve adapted my hill sprint sessions; I run up the gentle slope at a fast pace, around 8 out of 10 for effort – then for the final steep 50m I sprint at maximum effort.

Here’s one of my hill sprint sessions:

And here are some of my top tips for hill sprints!

Tip #1: Get Your Music Right

I find good music a necessity for doing high-interval sessions.

So here’s how I do it; I cue up a playlist that is a mixture of fast, high-energy songs and slow, gentle songs (the Red Hot Chili Peppers album BloodSugarSexMagik is a current fave).

I then put the playlist on shuffle, and switch songs to suit the interval; hard, fast songs for the sprints and slow songs for the recovery.

Keeping the playlist on shuffle means you’re often surprised and gain a little boost.

Tip #2: Eat Beforehand

Hill sprints are definitely something I can do well on an empty stomach – a small snack like an energy bar or banana 45-60 minutes before the session can make all the difference to my energy levels.

Tip #3: Don’t Sweat The Results

For me, hill sprints are all about the effort – I try not to worry too much about the actual timing results.

Instead, my measure of a good hill sprint interval is one which leaves me utterly breathless by the top of the hill.

Tip #4: Set Up a Strava Segment

Alright, this slightly contradicts the previous point, but logging your hill sprints can prove valuable for later tracking your gains and progress.

If you have a hill that you use regularly, set up a Strava segment for the fast running uphill section – that way, every time you run this section, Strava will isolate and record your performance.

I’ve found that over time my PR time hasn’t actually improved that much; what has improved is my consistency in reps during a session, and my recovery times between reps.

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

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