10 Best Hill Workouts
Get high and mighty
NOTHING builds running strength better than hills. Running on inclines forces your muscles to work harder with each step; as you grow stronger, your stride becomes more efficient and your speed improves. ‘I’m a great believer in the benefits of hill workouts,’ say UK elite athlete and RW columnist Jo Pavey. ‘Speed requires good running technique and to run uphill effectively you must use your muscles in a very coordinated way. Speed also requires a quick cadence, which will be encouraged by hill running.’
Research bears this out. A 2015 study published in the International Journal of
Sports Physiology and Performance had a group of runners perform six weeks of high-intensity uphill running intervals; not only did their running economy improve, but also they were, on average, two per cent faster in 5K time-trial performances.
But while ascents require more effort from your heart and lungs, downhill running poses its own challenges – and rewards. Descending feels easy aerobically, but each step triggers muscledamaging eccentric contractions in the quads and lower legs. These also occur on level ground, but on declines the load increases. This creates more micro-tears, which stimulates muscle growth but could leave you sore – which is why the Boston Marathon route, with its four-mile downhill opening stretch, is harder than it seems. Practising downhill running helps prepare your body for this.
As shown in the workouts here, varying the steepness and length of hill repeats – from short, steep sprints to longer, rolling hill runs – hits all the physiological bases – speed, strength, efficiency and endurance. Hitting the hills every one or two weeks will make you a fitter, stronger runner.
1 HILLS START WHY
An introduction to hill training for new runners. HOW
Jog for 10 minutes to warm up, then walk for two minutes. From the bottom of a gentle incline, run up for five seconds, then walk back to the starting point. Run up again for seven seconds, then walk down. Run for 10 seconds, walk down. Shorten your stride and keep your feet low to the ground on the ascents. Feeling strong? Repeat the sequence. Do the workout every seven to 14 days.
6 DOWNHILL LOOPS WHY
This workout adds focus to your preparation for a hilly race. HOW
Find a hilly loop that is about 1.5 miles long. After a 10-minute warm-up, run the loop with moderate effort on the uphills and a comfortably hard effort (equal to about your goal race pace) on the downhills. Rest for two minutes, then repeat the loop two to four times. Each week or two you can progress by adding a loop, picking up the pace or reducing your rest time between the efforts.
2 UPHILL EFFORT WHY
Research1 has found that most runners try to run too fast uphill. It’s best to maintain an even effort rather than try to sustain your flat pace. This workout will help you to lock in to a sustainable pace. HOW
Find an ascent that takes 10 mins or longer to cover. Mimic the effort you'd expend on a flat run, no matter how slow it feels. Listen to your breathing: if it gets noticeably heavier, ease up. Or use a heart-rate monitor to moderate your effort level.
7 SPEED HILLS WHY
Recommended by Jo Pavey, this session is great for building speed, as it develops leg strength and power in a dynamic way. HOW
Find a hill that takes three minutes or longer to run up. Do 5 x 1-min uphill reps, with a jogdown recovery between each. Rest for three mins. Then do 5 x 45-sec uphill reps, with jog-down recovery. Rest for three mins. Do 3 x 30-sec uphill reps, with jog-down recovery. Rest for three mins. Finally, run up the hill for 3 mins, accelerating for the last 30 secs.
3 SUMMIT ATTACK WHY
Helps you regain your flatground pace more quickly as you near the crest of a hill. HOW
Use long strides as a cue to open up your stride and accelerate as you approach the top of a hill. To practise this transition, especially when you’re tired, find a hill that takes about 45 seconds to climb. Run hard to the top, then lengthen your stride and accelerate for 15 seconds to ingrain the quick transition. Jog down for recovery. Repeat six to 10 times.
8 SHORT HILL SPRINTS WHY
Increases leg strength, improves form and builds speed. Best suited to runners with some experience. HOW
After a good warm-up, explode up a steep hill for eight to 12 seconds. ‘Give it 100 per cent,’ says coach Jason Fitzgerald. Give yourself one to two minutes to walk down and catch your breath. ‘Don’t cut your recovery time short,’ he says. Do hill sprints once a week and work your way up to eight reps. ‘This is like weightlifting for runners,’ says Fitzgerald.
4 DOWNHILL STRIDES WHY
Good form is vital if you want gravity to be your friend. Practising fast cadence on downhills helps you avoid the tendency to brake because you’re not used to the pounding. HOW
After a run, do four to six relaxed 100m strides down a gentle slope; progress over time to a steeper decline. Keep your arms wide and low for balance, shorten your stride and focus on quick steps. If your breathing gets quieter you can push a little harder.
9 KILLER HILLS WHY
Get stronger by climbing fast. ‘This is a very good transitional workout between late-winter base mileage and late-spring speedwork,’ says 2:32 US marathoner Jeannette Faber. HOW
After a 10-15minute warm-up incorporating six 100m strides, do eight to 12 repeats of a gradual hill. Progress from a moderate effort lasting 1:45-1:50 to a hard effort of 1:30-1:35. Between each repeat, jog down the hill for 2:30-3:30. Finally, warm down for 10-15 minutes.
5 DOWNHILL REPEATS WHY
Practising downhills prepares your body to handle the eccentric muscle contractions it demands from the quads, improving your performance on hilly courses. HOW
Find a grassy hill about 100m long, with an incline of two to three per cent (rises two to three metres over 100m). After a 10min warm-up, run up at an easy pace, run down at a comfortably hard pace. Repeat two to four times. Each week, add a repeat or two, or find a slightly steeper hill.
10 UP & DOWN HARD WHY
This one will toughen you up and prepare you for a hilly race. It also teaches you to race hard on uphills and downhills. HOW
Run up a moderate incline in 2:05, then run down in 1:55 (this pace should feel akin to a 10K to halfmarathon effort in both directions). Recover for two minutes. Repeat five times. Jog to a steeper hill. Run up in 1:05, then down in 55 seconds (should feel like a 5K to 10K effort). Recover for one minute. Repeat five times.