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Kenyan Hills: Your New Favorite Speed Workout

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Hill workouts should have a place in most runners’ training programs as their importance to performance cannot be underestimated. Most of us have heard of traditional hill workouts, but what about Kenyan Hills?

The increase in specific leg strength that hills develop will make an athlete more efficient as their running economy improves. Research suggests that this improvement can better a runner’s race performance over the 5km and 10km distances.

There are several different types of traditional hill workouts that can easily be included in any runner’s schedule. These workouts often involve the athlete finding a moderate to steep hill, running a set number of repetitions up the hill, and using the downhill as a recovery between each one.

The length, gradient, and the number of repetitions are key variables that change depending on the purpose of the particular hill session.

For instance, a hill workout for power would involve running explosively up a steep hill for a short duration, for 4-6 reps, and include a light jog or walk back to the start as recovery. A hill session aiming to build general strength would involve running up a hill for up to 45 seconds, 8-10 repetitions, and jogging back to the start as recovery.

However, there is a type of hill workout that is commonly called Kenyan Hills that is less known. This concept of Kenyan Hills is believed to have been around since the 1970s. What makes them different from our traditional hill workouts?

Let us take a closer look at what they are, their benefits, and how you can fit them into your running schedule.

In this article we will explore:

  • What are Kenyan Hills?
  • What are the Benefits of Kenyan Hills?
  • How to Run Kenyan Hills
  • Kenyan Hills Workout Examples

Ready?

Let’s jump in!

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What are Kenyan Hills?

The East African athletes have always understood the importance of hills and it is often commented that their consistent hill training is one of the factors behind their continued success on the world stage.

Steve Vernon, 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 distance events stating, “The East Africans have proven that it works. 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.”

Kenyan Hills are a continuous session of uphill running followed by downhill running.

The main difference between Kenyan Hills and a normal hill session is that on the downhill you’ll be looking to maintain the same effort (akin to running a tempo-paced session) and should not use this section as a traditional recovery.

Kenyan Hills

In this type of hill workout, the runner will run continuously for a set duration, say 30 minutes, or they could break down the session into intervals, say 5 x 5 mins, with a 2-minute recovery.

In terms of effort, you should try to run the entire duration around your tempo pace. This is a tough session and unlike the traditional hills sessions where you use the downhill section as recovery, you will try and maintain a steady pace or effort throughout.

In terms of why they are called Kenyan Hills, there is no specific evidence of where the name came from or who indeed was the first to coin the term. However, it is generally believed it derived from a Western athlete returning from a training period in Kenyan.

Kenyan Hills

Their description of how the Kenyans trained during their time there resulted in the concept of Kenyan Hills being born.

Nevertheless, Gavin Smith of the company Kenyan Experience believes that there is little evidence that Kenyan athletes perform this type of session regularly!

He comments that a typical “easy” morning run for an elite Kenyan athlete would involve continuous uphill and downhill running. As most runs in Kenya are hilly, this would feel like a hard tempo session for a lesser runner or someone not in the same aerobic shape as those elite athletes. Perhaps this is where they got the name from.

That said, Kenya has certainly produced one or two half-decent runners over the years and while you may not be able to match the altitude of Kenyan Hills where you live, these sessions will certainly strengthen you up.

Kenyan Hills

What are the Specific Benefits of Kenyan Hills?

Regular hill training can provide plenty of benefits including:

  • Improving strength endurance
  • Developing specific leg strength (quadriceps, hip flexors, calves)
  • Enhancing an athlete’s ABCs (ability, balance, coordination)
  • Improving power and maximum speed (short power hills)
  • Developing cadence and stride frequency (downhill running)
  • Promoting a better running economy.

All of these training effects should translate to improvements in race performances. Additionally, one of the remarkable things about regular hill running is that it develops the strength in your leg muscles and tendons without putting them under the type of stress they are exposed to during fast interval running.

Kenyan Hills

When it comes to Kenyan Hills, there are several additional benefits:

  • They are great for getting used to continual change of pace as you go from running uphill to downhill. This helps you get used to races where surges and changes in pace are commonplace – cross country races for instance.
  • You get used to running at a high intensity (tempo pace– around 80% of your max heart rate) coupled with periods where your heart rate drops, but not to levels where they are considered recovery pace. With the HR kept relatively high in the “recovery” phases, the length of the session will depend on your current fitness.
  • Kenyan Hills are a terrific 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 with this feeling in training will lead to no surprising sensations come race day!

Kenyan Hills

How to Run Kenyan Hills

For a Kenyan hills training session, you’ll be aiming to run continuously over a long duration, so you’ll typically need a longer stretch of time than you would use for the traditional short hill sprint session.

Ideally, you should be aiming for a hill that is between 400m and 800m long, which would take somewhere in the range of one to three and a half minutes to ascend.

Don’t worry too much about how fast you climb but focus on feeling relaxed and maintaining a steady pace. Remember that you’ll not only get an endurance boost from the run, but you’re also developing specific leg strength.

In terms of example sessions, there’s huge potential for variety. If you are new to this type of training, you can try the following:

Kenyan Hills

Kenyan Hills Workout Examples

#1: Start at a solid steady pace as you run uphill. Then turn immediately at the top and run down the hill with a long-relaxed stride, then repeat without resting. Continue for 5 minutes and then take 2 minutes of recovery before repeating three more times.

#2: As above, this time increase the duration to 8 minutes with a 2-minute recovery. Repeat two more times.

As you gradually become more comfortable with this type of session and you have been able to maintain the required pace, move on to trying the following sessions in the same hilly terrain:

#3: Run steady for 10 minutes, take a 3-minute recovery. Repeat 2 more times.

#4: Try 2 x 15 minutes with a 4-minute recovery

#5: Once you have built up sufficient endurance and strength, you could have a go at a continuous 30-minute block with no recovery.

Remember for each effort, try and keep as consistent a pace as possible for the uphill and downhill sections. Your heart rate will be around 80-90% of its max and it shouldn’t drop into recovery zones on the downhill sections.

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Final Thoughts

There are several factors that have resulted in Kenyans dominating endurance events. Diet, running as a part of life from a young age, and living and training at altitude are some of the reasons most attributed to their success. However, one thing that is consistent amongst Kenyan athletes is their hill running.

The Kenyan Hills sessions are great if you have a hilly race coming up or have been a bit bored of the normal hill session or tempo runs in your schedule.

After all, more and more of the popular marathons include some very arduous climbs (Boston has the Heartbreak Hill), so having more experience running hills and building the specific leg strength that comes with it can give you the edge on race day!

If you are interested in other hill workouts, you can check out these next articles:

How To Perform Hill Sprints

Running Uphill Guide

Running Downhill

Kenyan Hills
Photo of author
Cathal Logue is an avid runner and coach. After competing against Sir Mo Farah aged 16, he suffered several injuries throughout his 20s. Despite not reaching the same heights as some of his contemporaries, he still holds impressive PBs of 9.09 for 3k, 15.36 for 5k, and 33.36 for 10k. His goal now is to help runners of all abilities reach their potential and likes exploring the mountains north of his current home, Madrid, Spain.

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