Training

Why Hills Are Your Friends During an Extended Offseason

Hills build endurance, improve top-end speed and enhance VO2 Max while helping to keep you injury-free.

Hill workouts are one of the most versatile workouts that a distance runner can complete. And now that many of us are sheltering in place with no races on the calendar for months, it’s an ideal time to focus on such a beneficial type of workout.

Hill sessions can be run during the base phase of training or just a few days before a key (virtual) race effort. They can build endurance, top-end speed, help prevent injuries, and improve VO2 Max.

Let’s explore each benefit in more detail and give you a specific workout for each goal.

Hills Prevent Injuries

Running uphill against gravity builds strength. In fact, hill training is “specific strength work” for runners, work that helps them get stronger even if they don’t have access to a gym for weightlifting. And stronger runners are less prone to repetitive stress injuries.

Moreover, uphill repetitions are easier on your joints and connective tissues than similar efforts on flat terrain. Since you’re working against gravity, you’re running slower at the same effort and landing sooner at the same speed, which reduces the impact forces of running fast, dramatically lowering the stress on your legs.

The good news is that any type of hill workout will help you become more resilient to injuries. You’ll build strength whether you’re running hill sprints, short reps, or long reps.

If you’ve been doing repetitions on the road or track, moving them to a long hill will increase the strength-building aspect of the workout and further reduce your risk of injury.

Runner doing hill workout
photo: 101 Degrees West

Hills Build Endurance

Using gravity as a training tool can be enormously beneficial when building aerobic strength and endurance.

While many runners think of hill workouts as grueling, fast sessions, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are two great ways to run lower intensity hills while still building endurance.

During base training, long hill reps of 3–5 minutes at a tempo or lactate threshold (LT) effort mimic the training effects of a traditional tempo run. It’s important to run at your LT effort rather than the exact pace you’d run on a track or the road. Since you’re running uphill, your normal pace will feel a lot faster.

A second way to create lower-intensity but highly-effective hill workout is to do a steady hill climb. You’ll need a route that includes a long, gradual hill of 1–5 miles at the end of your run. You have two options for how to run the hill:

  • If you’re completely new to hill work, finish your run uphill at the same effort as the rest of your run. You’ll slow slightly, but that’s just fine!
  • If you’re an intermediate or advanced runner, you can run the uphill segment at marathon, half-marathon, or tempo pace.

Both long reps and steady climbs are done at LT efforts (or slightly faster) against gravity, making them excellent endurance (and strength!) building workouts.

Hills Develop Speed

Hills force you to run against resistance (gravity). And if you build your capacity to run fast uphill, you’ll be substantially faster on flat ground.

Fast uphill running has quite a few benefits:

  • Running hard up steep grades builds more power than running on flat ground
  • Hard uphill running promotes more economical form, reducing your energy expenditure
  • Sprinting up a steep hill forces the recruitment of the maximum number of muscle fibers possible, building strength and your capacity for speed

Two types of hill sessions work incredibly well for this goal: hill sprints and short reps.

Hill sprints are only 8–10 seconds—but they’re run up the steepest hill you can find at a maximum effort. Take a full recovery of 1.5 – 2min of walking and you’ll be ready for the next rep. If you’re new to hill sprints, start with 1 or 2. Work up to a maximum of 6–8 reps.

Short hill repetitions last anywhere from 45–90 seconds and have a “jog back down” recovery. These reps are done at about 3k—5k effort (or in other words, a VO2 Max effort) and can be structured with as little as 5 reps or as many as 15, depending on the pace and duration, and where you are in a training season.

Both workouts contribute to how fast you’re able to run: hill sprints build your absolute top-end speed and short reps enhance your staying power in the middle of a mid-distance event.

masters hill training
photo: Getty Images

Hills Work for Every Runner

Implement a variety of these workouts into your training and you’ll have more power, resilience to injury, speed, and endurance. What’s not to love?

Every runner—no matter their experience or ability—stands to benefit from the strength, power, and speed that’s gained from these hill workouts.

If you’re base training, hills can build endurance and injury resilience that are integral skills to carry into more challenging training in the months ahead.

If you’re injury-prone, hill reps and sprints build strength and, working against gravity, reduces the impact forces on your joints and muscles.

If you’re a beginner, hill reps reinforce good form and build power—two skills that are critical as you become more advanced.

If you’re a masters runner, hills help reduce age-related muscle loss and strength.

Choose the type of workout that’s most appropriate for your goals… and hit the hills!