Frank Shorter famously noted that “hills are speed work in disguise.” And he couldn’t be more correct!
Hill workouts provide runners with a versatile, dynamic session that can accomplish a wide-ranging set of goals. With benefits like power, strength, speed, and even injury prevention, hills have a place in nearly every runners program.
But you want to make sure you are completing the right type of hill workout for the goals you have.
Below are three of the most productive types of hill sessions for runners, how to execute them, and the benefits they deliver.
Long Hill Reps
This workout has you run hill repetitions of 2–4 minutes with a slow jog back to the bottom of the hill as recovery.
Because of their duration, long hills are not as intense as the next two workouts, so this session is best used during earlier phases of training, like the base phase. They can be plugged into your training for several reasons:
- To build strength in the beginning stages of a training season
- To vary a tempo workout (as long as the pace is 10–20 seconds slower per mile than tempo pace)
- If shorter repetitions were scheduled but an easier day is warranted
A similar workout on the track might be longer reps of 1,000m—1 mile at roughly 10K race pace. Both are examples of what I call “high quality endurance”—faster efforts that support tempo pace.
The grade of the hill should not be too aggressive—about 4–5 percent is ideal. Structure this workout as 4–6 repetitions so the total time of uphill running is about 12–16 minutes.
A few examples include:
- 4 x 4 minute hills @ 10K pace
- 6 x 2 minute hills @ 10K pace (or slightly faster)
- 5 x 3 minute hills @ 10K pace
This kind of a hill workout builds muscular strength and endurance. While all hills build strength, this session is the least risky (because it’s run slower on a hill with a more gradual grade). And the aerobic strength, or endurance, gained from long hill reps paves the way for the more challenging hill workouts to come later in the season.
Short Hill Reps
This type of hill session is most similar to what many runners think of when they imagine a “hill workout.” You run uphill for 60–90 seconds with a jog back to the starting point as recovery.
Short reps are intense, just like a VO2 Max workout, so they’re best used during the middle or later phases of training when you’re more focused on speed.
The pace should be about 2 miles to 5K race pace on a hill that’s roughly a 6–8 percent grade. The grade of the hill and the speed at which you’re running make this a fantastic workout for developing power, strength, and your ability to deliver precious oxygen to your muscles.
A few examples include:
- 8 x 90 seconds hills @ 5K Pace
- 10 x 60 seconds hills @ 2-mile Pace
- 3 x 90 seconds hills, 3 x 60 seconds hills, 3 x 45 seconds that begins at 10K pace and gradually gets faster
This type of hill workout has the most flexibility, so feel free to alter the pace, duration of the repetition, and the number of reps to suit your specific needs.
Like other VO2 Max-oriented workouts, this kind of a hill workout prioritizes power, speed, and oxygen delivery under stress. If your goal is to improve your finishing kick or train for a great 5k, short hill reps are a fantastic addition to your training.
photo: 101 Degrees West
Even though I don’t technically consider hill sprints a formal “workout,” they’re included here because of the immense benefit they provide to runners.
Hill sprints are literally sprints—meaning you run literally as fast as possible. They’re only 8-10 seconds long and unlike the previous types of hill workouts, they’re run after an easy run rather than as a stand-alone session.
Find the steepest hill you can find and run 4–8 repetitions of 8–10 seconds uphill at your top speed. The first rep can be slightly slower to help yourself warm up. The cool down is at least 90 seconds (but preferably two minutes) of walking (not running).
Because of the effort and the grade of the hill, hill sprints recruit an enormous number of muscle fibers.
This gives runners specific benefits unique to this type of session:
- They increase stride power (just like strength training)
- They improve running economy (i.e., your efficiency)
- They strengthen muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues
If you’re an injury-prone runner, hill sprints are an excellent injury prevention strategy. If you’re unable to focus on power in the gym, this is the next best thing. Sprinting uphill against gravity is the running version of power squats.
So look at your goals and where you’re currently at within your training season. No matter who you are as a runner, there’s a hill workout that’s right for you.