I’ll be the first to admit that running hills is intimidating and I didn’t always seek them out in my training. However, hills are a guaranteed training tool for increasing your speed, improving your running form and economy, and building your endurance. So recently I began to incorporate more hills into my training (increasing gradually as my sprained foot continues to heal) in hopes of becoming faster, fitter, and a better runner and hiker.
And I’ll admit that I’m becoming a bit of a hill lover already: while I still love my normal flat routes for long runs and harder workouts, hills on my easy run are making me feel stronger and inject a sense of thrill into a normal easy run.
Yes hills present a challenge to every runner, but that’s why hill running workouts will improve your running: you need to add a stressor to see physiological adaptations. Stressors are inherently challenging, whether you are increasing your mileage, running faster, or lifting heavier weights.
Even more so: why avoid workouts that intimidate you? It’s not like those hills are actually going to kill you or ruin your day. If anything, they will only make you physically and mentally strong. So quit avoiding them on your route and try one of these 3 hill running workouts!
The Benefits of Hill Running Workouts
Let’s talk physics-y: gravity works against you when you run up a hill. The same pace will require more energy and therefore more effort to propel your body weight against the force of gravity as you ascend the hill.
Of course, that’s why downhill running lets you run faster: gravity assists you, thus reducing the amount of energy required for downhill running.
The benefits of hill running workouts:
- Improved turnover of feet, which means faster cadence (key for running faster).
- Better neuromuscular fitness, which improves your running economy across all distances
- Builds power and strength in the lower body
- Uses a variety of muscles, which teaches you to activate those muscles while running on any terrain (glute activation is important for powerful running)
- Decreased risk of injury (especially hamstring injury) compared to fast running on flat ground
- Hills are speedwork in disguise – a cliche amongst running coaches but true!
- Hills build your endurance and increase your fatigue resistance
- You feel strong and that confidence permeates to other areas of your life and running
When to include hills:
- During the base phase, in lieu of speed work: hills place less stress on the body than speed work, so you can focus on building your mileage while maintaining some speed and power.
- When you’re training for hilly race: specificity should be the number one priority in planning your workouts.
- When you want to lose weight: running hills burns more calories than flat ground running.
- When you’re in a plateau: running hills will help you get faster, even when you’re already doing speed work.
Don’t have hills near you? Opt for the treadmill, although you will lose some of the benefits of downhill running, or find a parking garage and run it during low traffic hours (and practice good safety measures, including visibility and unplugging from any music or podcasts!).
3 Hill Running Workouts for Runners of All Levels
Hill sprints offer numerous benefits to runners: serious metabolism-boosting afterburn, improved running form, better resistance to fatigue, increased stroke volume (more blood pumped to the muscles), stronger lower body muscles, and bursts of speed development without the wear and tear of traditional speed work.
Plus, hill sprints give distance runners the exhilaration of running at top effort – without the risk of injury since uphill running places less force and stress on the joints and muscles than flat or downhill running.
Hill sprints are an ancillary workout, similar to strides or form drills. Therefore you can include them on easy days and see significant benefits in your training without the accumulation of too much fatigue or wear on the body. However, if you are training for very hilly race like Boston or New York City Marathon, you will need to do additional hill running workouts beyond hill sprints to train your body to run hills well.
As you would with any new training load, gradually introduce hill sprints into your routine with 1-2 repeats of 8 seconds uphill (with a full recovery of 60-90 seconds in between) once or twice per week after an easy run. Ideally, you should run hill sprints on a 5-10% incline, but any hill that gets you huffing and puffing without altering your form will work. Give your body a week or two to adapt, and then increase the number of repetitions.
Hill sprints are ideal for runners of all levels and for any point in your training.
Forget the track; hill repeats will teach your body to recruit your fast twitch muscle fibers and run faster without the speed work’s risk of injury.
I also love hill repeats because the physics of them force you to rely on perceived effort rather than pace. Most hill workouts are described in terms of “5K effort” rather than “5K pace,” and that effort will vary drastically based on the gradient of your hill of choice, the wind, and other factors.
You can do hill repeats for anywhere duration from 30 seconds to 5 minutes and at any effort from 3K to 10K effort (very hard to hard).
As with all harder running workouts including fartleks and tempo runs, warm up with 5-20 minutes (depending on your mileage) of easy running followed by dynamic stretches and drills such as high knees, butt kicks, and skips. Then, run 6-8 x 1 minute hard uphill (your breathing should be labored, but not so hard that you crash and burn after a few repeats) and recover with a slow jog back down (1-2 minutes). Cool down with 5-20 minutes of easy running, foam roll, refuel, and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.
Uphill Progression Run
Some race courses are notorious for their nasty uphill finishes. While we may never know why a race director thought it was a good idea to make tired runners climb a giant hill before crossing the finish line, specificity is the golden rule of training and if your race features hills in the last quarters, then you want to train to finish a run with a uphill portion.
An uphill progression run will benefit you even if you aren’t running the Boston Marathon or the Seattle Rock and Roll Marathon/Half Marathon. Why? An uphill progression run teaches you two things: how to recruit your muscle to power uphill and how to push the effort of a run when you’re fatigued. Progression runs of any sort teach runners how to pace properly during a race, especially if you’ve repeatedly gone out too fast in marathons and half marathons.
You can add an uphill progression run to any length of run, but the most benefits will come from runs of 60 minutes or more when you have time to accumulate some fatigue in your legs. During the final 10-15 minutes of an easy paced run of 7-10 miles, find a long gradual uphill or a series of rolling hills and run them at a moderate effort. Your pace may not change, but you should notice an increase in your perceived exertion.
This work is particularly beneficial to marathoners, who need to learn to recruit their fast twitch muscles when fatigued and run at a higher perceived exertion at the end of the run. An uphill progression run will make the final 10K of a full or 5K of a half marathon feel easier and help you run that PR you’ve been training so hard for.
Most importantly, run all of these workouts with proper uphill and downhill running form: upright posture, strong pumping arms, and a quick cadence. This Runner’s Connect article provides excellent instruction on proper vs. improper hill running form.
Of course, these workouts should be part of a structured, progressive, and logical training plan if you are training for a race. A hodgepodge of workouts is not a training plan! If in doubt or if you want someone to take all of the guesswork out of training for you, please consider hiring a running coach (you can learn more about my coaching services and training plans here!).
What type of running workouts have you avoided in the past or avoid now because they intimidate you?
What’s your favorite type of hill workout?
Hilliest race you’ve ever ran?