Runners are connoisseurs of hills. We’re always on the lookout for the best combination of length, grade, surface and mystique on which to create effective and memorable workouts. We savor each hill’s unique blend of effort and fatigue, and its aftertaste of muscle burn, satisfaction and strength.
PodiumRunner is gathering favorite hills from top coaches and athletes around the country for you to sample when you’re in their neighborhood and to use as models for creating butt-kicking workouts on similar grades in your neck of the woods.
Coach: Olympic marathoner Jenny Spangler
Hill: Lake Bluff Beach Hill, Lake Bluff, Illinois
Elevation Gain: 70 Feet
Average Grade: 9% (12% for first 150m before leveling off near the top)
The workout: Up, Over and Past the Hill in 3 Variations
The Lake Bluff Beach Hill is a shaded north-south route along Lake Michigan in the quiet neighborhood surroundings of Lake Bluff, Illinois. This mostly pedestrian-only traffic hill (there is a locked gate at the top) makes it a safe location to get in quality work.
Even though the hill is relatively short (approximately 200 meters) with a 9% grade, I’ve found a variety of excellent workouts that can be done with this hill, mostly because at the top of the hill there is both an approximately 100 meter flat straightaway and a 500 meter flat road loop.
A key component to my hill workouts is what you do after you crest the top of the hill. I have witnessed many runners in races exert a lot of energy going up the hill and then ease up after cresting the hill, which results in getting passed by several runners. I like to practice even effort up, over, and past the hill. You’ll pace yourself more appropriately on the incline, and practice transitioning your stride and recovering from the effort of the climb while maintaining pace — just as you need to during a race.
Following are examples of workouts that I like to use to focus on different aspects of getting the most out of the hill. An easy warmup of 2 to 3 miles and cool down is assumed.
Just the Hill
Sometimes I have runners just tackle the hill itself. This is a pure hill workout that focuses on building leg muscle strength and improving running economy:
Continuous Hill Repeats
- 8 – 12 x Lake Bluff Beach Hill
- Hard effort up, easy effort back down. Head straight back up: continuous workout, where only stopping is to grab fluids.
Tempo Plus Hills
This variation is great for pushing the legs when they are tired:
- 3 mile tempo run @ ½ marathon/marathon effort
- 4 – 6 x Lake Bluff Beach Hill
- Hard effort up, easy effort back down, head straight back up.
Up, Over and Past
Workout #1: Hill + 100s
The focus of this workout is to maintain consistent effort after cresting the hill:
- 8 – 12 x Lake Bluff Beach Hill + 100m over the top.
- Hard effort up and continue pushing around gate and through the 100 meter straightaway. Easy effort back to bottom of the hill. Head straight back up. Continuous workout until reps are completed.
Variation: Alternate Finish Lines
I will sometimes have my athletes alternate between running the hill only and running the hill plus pushing the straightaway. For example: #’s 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 are simply running the hill hard and easy down with #’s 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 running up the hill and continue pushing the 100 meter straightaway. I typically do this at the beginning of the season when doing all 12 pushing the straightaway is too much.
Workout #2: Hill + 500s
- 6 – 12 x Lake Bluff Beach Hill + 500m over the top.
- Hard effort up, around gate, and push the entire 500 meter loop at the top. Recovery is back down hill. Head straight back up.
Workout #3: Mixed Sets
This is a fun workout that builds within each set:
- 3 – 4 sets of the following: (each set is approximately 2000 meters with 1200m hard)
- Hard up the hill, easy down
- Hard up the hill, around the gate, and push the 100 meter straightaway, easy back to bottom of hill
- Hard up the hill, around the gate, and push the 500 meter loop, easy back to bottom of hill
Take a short 90 second to 2 minute recovery after each set. Start again at the beginning. Four sets is a substantial workout for later in the season when you have the strength and stamina to run every rep strong.
Jenny Spangler won the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. She coaches runners of all abilities both online and in group settings throughout the northern suburbs of Chicago.