Every runner wants to get faster. You get faster by training faster, but speed can kill—putting a quick end to your performance dreams if you get injured or burnt out.
Enter hills. Hills can provide a foundation for speed and allow for a smooth, safe transition to later-season, intensified speed workouts.
When you’re just starting to build up fitness for the season, it makes sense to start easy and work your way into harder and longer sessions. As a coach, I’ve learned over the years that hill work is a great primer for the body as it prepares for more work and more intense work. If we consider base work / easy aerobic runs as the foundation of training for longer aerobic events, hill training is the foundation of high aerobic / high lactate work.
Hills allow the athlete the opportunity to get in resistance work (thanks gravity!), form work, and, by their very nature, a certain amount of recovery (what goes up must come down). Running hills requires a less intense eccentric hamstring contraction; it’s the safest way to get a large aerobic and muscular benefit early in the season without exposing yourself to a potential injury.
Getting the Grade
There is no such a thing as one perfect hill—the one you choose all depends on what you’re trying to do and what you need to get out of the workout. Keeping the grade in the 4–8% range is perfectly steep enough to get a good stimulus for your legs early in the season.
Also: You don’t have to blast every hill at 100% effort, which is what I think most people associate with hill running—and why they hate the thought of a hill. You can definitely do short bouts near max effort, but for the most part, hills need not be harder than 5K effort.
Hills are beautiful training because of the number of variables you get to play with for a single workout. Early season hills are designed to be building blocks for the work you’ll do later; leave the hard, all-out efforts for the track.
Sample Early-Season Workouts:
Early Season: 8–10 x 40 seconds @ 6–10% grade @ 3K effort, walk down recoveries [High Intensity, Long Recovery]
Early/Mid Season: 6 x 1 minute @ 4–6 grade @ half marathon pace, walk down recoveries [Threshold Intensity, Long Recovery]
Mid Season: 5 x 2 minutes @ 4–6% grade @ marathon pace, with jog down recoveries [Power Endurance]
When to Make the Switch
I normally move my athletes over from hills to speed work when they are running a hill for the same duration that they would run 400–600m reps on a flat track at the same heart rate or intensity. For example, if the athlete can run 400m in 90 seconds, I’ll start to integrate true speed work when they are running hills for 60–90 seconds at a time.
The switch from hill to speed work is best defined as a transition period, and I like to use workouts that move them from strictly uphill work to more flat and fast work that still has a hill strength component. I often have athletes do 1 hill session for 4 weeks and then transition towards a “split hill” workout for 2–3 sessions before moving onto the track for 200’s and 400’s.
A flat-to-hill or “split-workout’ is where you build up speed on a flat grade to 5K race effort and then maintain effort on an uphill. These flat-to-hill efforts are a great way to get a little bit of fast running at pace, and build power in the second half of the interval. Specifically we’re teaching the body how to better manage a high level of lactate like we’d see in a flat interval but we’re also teaching the brain to stay up on our toes and activate the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors so we can maintain great form as we tire in the final stretches of an interval or race.
To do a split hill workout, find a 200–400m hill that has a flat or shallow run up. To transition to track work, do hills up to 2 minutes in length for 6–10 reps, where the hill portion is 50% of the interval. Walk or jog easy back to the start. You still need full recovery early in your cycles, so you get to determine the recovery, taking as much time as you need to get the highest quality reps.
Sample Transition Workouts:
Transition / Split Hill 8 x 1:30 @ 6–8% grade hill @ 10K intensity, jog down recoveries [High Intensity]
Transition / Split Hill 5 x 3 minutes on 4-6% grade hill @ ½M-10K intensity, jog down recoveries [Power Endurance]
A standard rule: If you’re going shorter distances or times you can increase the reps to 10–12; longer reps are taxing and only require 4-6 reps.
Never Let It Go
As athletes you want to make sure you don’t become unidirectional and lose out on the great work you did early in the cycle as you get towards peak races. To ensure that you keep the body and brain engaged, throw in 8–10 second hills at the end of an aerobic run any time of the season.
At 8–10 seconds you’re not loading the legs up with lactate, but you’re encouraging a neuromuscular stimulus that acts like drills and engages the brain to maintain posture and form. While alactic hills won’t fully replace a dedicated hill workout, it’s a great way to focus on form and get a great power stimulus without overloading your legs when you’re focused on performing in a track or road race.