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

Get faster and stronger with our top tips for uphill sprint training.

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 workout 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.

In this guide, we will walk you through the how-to of performing hill training workouts, the most common mistakes made when running hill sprints, and how beneficial they can be for your running performance.

A person performing hill sprints.

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, uphill sprints introduce stressors (loads on your body) – in this case, the intense pace and the climb – to your body for a short time, then allow it to recover before repeating the same thing.

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 repetitions total – depending on your ability level.

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

A person running hills.

What Are The Benefits Of Hill Sprints For Runners?

The benefits of hill sprints include:

  • Improving your running economy (think ‘miles per gallon‘ for running)
  • Building muscle1Bissas, A., Paradisis, G. P., Nicholson, G., Walker, J., Hanley, B., Havenetidis, K., & Cooke, C. B. (2020). Development and Maintenance of Sprint Training Adaptations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning ResearchPublish Ahead of Print. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003409– making you more powerful and improving muscle connectivity tissues
  • Improving your cardiovascular fitness, boosting your VO2 max (they are essentially HIIT workouts)
  • Making you more injury-proof!

The benefits of hill sprints actually mirror that of resistance or strength training sessions, i.e. leg day at the gym with your squats and lunges.

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 drawbacks.

It’s something I’ve experienced myself – when I first scaled back from long distance to shorter distance training runs like 5ks, 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!

Before we get into our high intensity hill workouts, let’s look at the common mistakes people make when doing hill sprints:

A person running hills.

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 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 your running.

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

A person running hills.

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 very short hill sprints 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… beside the point.

So, instead of running to a specific speed, run to a rate of perceived exertion.

When battling your way uphill, 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 unable to say more than a few words.

When recovering and running back downhill, dial down your efforts as slowly 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 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.

A person running trail.

How To Do Hill Sprints

Step #1: The Warm-up

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

Spend with about a 5-minute easy run, at a relaxed pace to loosen things up and get ready.

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 to 15-second burst.

What is the optimal hill grade for sprint training?

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

Gradient Explainer

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.

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 build up 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 and running form is bedded in properly.

A person running hills.

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.

A person running hills.

Step #6: Cool 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 Should I Do Hill Sprints?

Hill sprints stress your leg muscles in new and challenging ways, so you must leave a few days for recovery between these workouts in your training program.

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 one hill sprint session will likely not 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.

People running uphill.

How I Do Hill Sprint Sessions + Some Practical Tips

As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important not to 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 run faster and 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 speedwork 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’t 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 that leaves me utterly breathless by the top of the hill.

A person running hills.

Tip #4: Set Up a Strava Segment

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.

To get that uphill running form right, check out this next guide:

References

  • 1
    Bissas, A., Paradisis, G. P., Nicholson, G., Walker, J., Hanley, B., Havenetidis, K., & Cooke, C. B. (2020). Development and Maintenance of Sprint Training Adaptations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning ResearchPublish Ahead of Print. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003409
Photo of author
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 playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

1 thought on “How To Perform Hill Sprints: Every Runner’s Secret Weapon”

  1. Great article! I have the perfect hill at the park I go to, about a mile from home. I plan on running it in a few weeks, as time permits. As for your recommendation for Strava, I found an app that is just awesome for outdoor sports of all kinds. It’s called WorkOutDoors. I use it for interval training, like the hill sprints, and regular runs. It works great on the apple watch. I highly recommend checking it out.

    Thanks again for a great writeup on hill sprints!

    Reply

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