Workout Of The Week: The Sisyphus Session

A challenging, effort-based hill workout that takes you farther and farther—'til you get to the top.

I love hill workouts. For my money, running up and down a hill gives you the most bang for your running buck—power, strength, endurance and speed all wrapped into one workout. The Sisyphus Session adds mental toughness to that mix.

You might be wondering what a mythical Greek king has to do with attacking an incline, so first, a quick lesson in mythology. Sisyphus was a greedy and deceitful king who was punished for his crimes by being sentenced to roll a large boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll all the way back down to the bottom before he ever reached the top. Despite his best efforts, he was forced to proceed in this manner for the rest of eternity.

This hill workout proceeds in much the same way, but, unlike our poor friend Sisyphus, you’ll have the good fortune of getting to stop. Eventually.

One Workout for All

The Sisyphus Session is one of the bread-and-butter strength-building sessions I like to have my athletes do toward the end of the the base-building phase, in the weeks before beginning more pace-specific workouts. I’ll assign some variation of this workout to 5K racers, marathoners and everyone in between. It’s one hill session that doesn’t discriminate.

As the nature of the name of the workout implies, you’ll be running up and down the hill a number of times. To get started, you will need to find a moderately steep incline that’s at least 400 meters long, ideally 800 to 1000 meters. Before beginning the workout, warm up with 15 to 20 minutes of easy jogging. Follow that up with some dynamic warmup drills and a set of four to six 20-second strides on flat ground before setting off up the hill.

long hill effort workout
photo: 101 Degrees West

Settling in the Effort

After warming up, run up the hill for 30 seconds at roughly 5K race effort and jog back down to the start for recovery. If you typically wear a GPS watch when you train, don’t pay attention to the pace on the screen. It will be slower than your actual race pace because you’re fighting against gravity, and since you’re not covering much horizontal ground at any one time it likely won’t register accurately on the watch, anyway. This workout is all about effort.

So without the aid of technology how do you know if the effort level is where it’s supposed to be as you’re running up the hill? It’s as easy as asking yourself, “Can I maintain this level of intensity for a 5K race?” If the answer is “no,” then back it off a bit.

Increasingly Long

Once you get back to the bottom of the hill, turn around and head right back up again at the same hard effort for 60 seconds. Pay close attention to your form as the workout progresses and you start to fatigue. Shorten your stride, get up on your forefoot, lift your knees and drive your arms. You should have the sensation of being pulled up the hill. When you hit the 60-second mark, turn around, jog back down to the start, and do it all over again, this time going up the hill for 90 seconds.

Congratulations, you’re almost there.

After jogging back down the hill upon completion of the 90-second repeat, head back up the hill for 2 minutes at the same effort and pat yourself on the back when you reach the top. You’ve finished the first set.

A completed set gives you 5 minutes worth of running uphill at an effort you should be able to maintain for a 5K race. For a beginning runner or someone just getting back into harder workouts after a lengthy layoff, this might be plenty of work the first time out. For more advanced runners looking to build some early-season strength, 2 to 3 sets (10-15 minutes of uphill running) is more like it. If you’re feeling overly ambitious, try a fourth set, but for most three will be more than enough. This is a tough session!

curvy hill workout
photo: 101 Degrees West

Easier and Harder Options

One variation of this workout is to shorten the length of each uphill rep (e.g. start with 15 seconds, work your way up to a minute) or find a hill with multiple twists and turns and forget about running up and down for set amounts of time. Simply run hard to the first turn and jog back down. Do the same to the next turn and continue proceeding in this manner until you reach the top of the hill. Adjust your effort level for the uphill runs based on the length of the hill and the number of sets you’re hoping to complete. In general, I suggest aiming for 10-15 minutes of uphill running at a strong effort.

In my college cross-country days, we did this workout on a stretch of dirt called Mountain Road, which was exactly one mile from bottom to top. We’d run up to various landmarks along the road, turn around and do it again…and again…and again, until we’d finished the workout with an all-out ascent to the top, at which point we were finally allowed to stop.

Updated from article originally published May, 2016.