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Hit The Hills, Reap The Benefits

Regardless of what you're training for, there's a hill workout out there for you.

One of the hardest parts about constructing a great training plan is trying to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. For each week or training cycle, you have a myriad of possible workouts to choose from—threshold runs, VO2 max, speed work, hill repeats and slight variations of all of these training elements. It can seem daunting to understand how each type of workout fits into a plan and how it helps you take a step toward your goal of running faster on race day.

In particular, many runners struggle with how to incorporate hill work into their training if their goal race is on a hilly course. It stands to reason that if you’re racing on a hilly course you need to work hill repeats into your training, right? Not as much as you may think. While hill repeats aren’t exactly race specific workouts, I do believe there is a beneficial way to incorporate hill sessions into your training.

In this article, we’ll outline the different types of hill workouts and highlight the benefits of each so you can better understand the physiological components and better incorporate the right type of hill workouts into your training.

Short, Explosive Sprints

Short, explosive hill sprints have become popular in today’s training programs thanks to the work of coaches such as Renato Canova and Brad Hudson, but they are something elite athletes have been performing for decades. They are NOT a primary fitness-building workout, but rather a great ancillary training component.

The idea is to run for 10-15 seconds up a steep hill (7-10 percent grade) at maximum effort. They’re called explosive hill sprints because you power up the hill like a sprinter coming out of the blocks. After each repeat, you take a full (2-3 minute) rest so that you’re fully recovered before starting again.

These types of hill sprints are designed to activate and improve the function of the neuromuscular system and increase maximal stroke volume in the heart.

The neuromuscular system is the communication vehicle between your brain and your muscles. A boost of “fitness” to the neuromuscular system allows your brain to increase the speed at which it sends signals to the muscles and, more importantly, allows your body to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibers and fire them more forcefully.

Enhancing maximal stroke volume increases the amount of blood your heart can pump with each stroke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and makes the heart more efficient.

As a reminder, these types of hill sprints are not a fitness-building workout, but more an ancillary training component, much like strides and form drills. Likewise, the physiological benefits won’t make you a better hill runner, even though they can help you improve as an overall runner.

Long Hill Repeats

Long hill repeats are the traditional type of hill workouts many runners want to do when they feel they need to improve their hill running skills. A good example of this type of workout is 10 x 90 second hill repeats at a hard effort with a walk or jog back down the hill for recovery.

These types of hill workouts are fantastic for improving VO2max and increasing muscle strength. In fact, long hill repeats are almost a form of strength training. As a runner, you can do squats, lunges, and hamstring curls until your muscles burn, but nothing compares exactly to running. The forceful contractions caused by the lifting of the hips, glutes and quads when you’re running up the hill utilizes the same principle mechanics as many plyometrics exercises. Also, because these long hill repeats are often very intense and last anywhere from 30-90 seconds, they are a great VO2 max workout.

Unfortunately, doing lots of hill repeats will not help you run faster over a hilly course. During a race, many of the hills you encounter will be long and gradual, not steep and short. Furthermore, the pace at which you ascend the hill will be conservative, not an all out sprint. Therefore, the specific muscles you are working and the demands you are placing on your body will be drastically different between a hill repeat workout and race.

This doesn’t mean that long hill repeats are useless. You can build general running strength and fitness when you integrate them into your training plan. I suggest sprinkling them into your training schedule in place of a VO2 max workout to help build muscle strength and enjoy a nice change of pace.

Rolling Hills

If you’re looking to improve your ability to tackle hills on race day, then incorporating rolling hills into your threshold and long runs is the best solution. This is how most elite training groups handle races contested over difficult courses. Case in point, in 2008, the Hansons-Brooks marathon training group did all of their workouts on a hilly out-an-back loop to simulate the rolling hills they would face at the Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City. That plan worked out great for eventual Olympian Brian Sell, who finished third that day and punched his ticket to Beijing.

Incorporating rolling hills into your runs provides your muscles and physiological systems the specific stimulus that it will face on race day — improving form over longer and more gradual hills and maintaining pace up and over the hill.

Furthermore, throwing some hills into your road runs teaches you how to pace yourself up and over hills so you can keep the effort within your target pace range during the race. Many runners attack hills too hard during a race, and as a consequence they go anaerobic and have to slow down considerably once the hill is over. The appropriate way to approach hills during a race is to maintain the same effort up and down, which will even out the pace over the long run. By practicing this tactic in training, you can become an expert at it on race day and save yourself from exerting too much energy.

Finally, rolling hills are a great way to prepare for a hilly race because they don’t require a change to your normal training routine. You can still execute all the threshold and long runs you need, but by changing your route to include a few hills, you’ll be specifically preparing yourself to handle the hills on race day.

When you’re putting together your training plan to prepare for a hilly race course, consider adding rolling hills to your long runs and threshold workouts to prepare for the specific demands you’ll face on race day.