Hills are a runner’s classic frenemy. On the plus side, they represent natural workstations for getting fitter and tougher, and you can use hills tactically to break a rival in a race. But few runners seek out the in-the-moment experience of climbs, which produce a recovery-run pace from race-level efforts. That said, most runners I know can name a hill on familiar route that alternates between an ally and a nemesis: A favorite hill.
The most important thing about a favorite training hill is its personal appeal. That’s because, if you’re clever, you can use this incline for all of your hill workouts. Whether you’re looking for a long run with some serious elevation change, an off-label tempo run, a classic set of uphill repeats, or a session that emphasizes changing gears, you can get a lot of literal mileage out of one well-chosen grade, or more specifically, loop. And, on days when you’re not brimming with motivation, this familiarity can be important.
The hill should feature a significant, but not extreme, grade – say, 6 to 8 percent, or about 80 to 100 feet of gain per quarter-mile. It should be about 300 to 500 meters long, with a clear transition from the top to flat ground; if it takes 90 seconds to two minutes to climb at 3K-to-5K race effort, it will serve. The grade need not be uniform, but at no point should it become either too extreme for normal running or too gentle to feel like the “extra” work you want.
To be useful for the range of workouts below, your hill should be part of a larger loop about three-quarters of a mile to a mile long, with a descent longer and gentler than the corresponding climb. Shaded is better, though in the wintertime this might mean an accumulation of ice.
The Orchard Loop
My own favorite hill after 36 years of running sits within shouting distance of the house my family had built in 1978. I ran loops here regularly every summer before cross-country season in the late ‘80s, though in a haphazard way. When I lived nearby into my early thirties, I would drive to my folks’ house just to get a reliable dose of vertical churn (as well as fine views).
Today, the then-nascent Apple Hill Farm is a popular local attraction, and its owners still welcome the odd young harrier – and plenty of deer – onto its bountiful slopes. The data show that it fulfills the general requirements of the workout, and the grass makes the steep part of downhill less jarring than the graph suggests.
Runner/Coach: Kevin Beck, 2:24 marathoner, has coached runners from high school to masters
Hill: The Orchard Loop, East Concord, N.H.
Length of Loop: 0.94 miles
Length of Ascent: 0.31 miles
Elevation Gain: 121’ feet (202’ for the entire loop)
Average Grade: 7.4%
1) The Snell Run
The late 800-meter-to-mile legend Peter Snell was noted for his hilly 22-mile training runs around Waiatarua in his native New Zealand. You can treat your own circuit as a segment in a medium-long or long run and complete a number of loops at a wholly aerobic effort. Each loop should take about 10 to 12 minutes at this effort.
Limit the time you spend on the circuit – about one-third of which will be climbing – to about 30 minutes initially, progressing to no more than 60 minutes in any run if you make this a regular occurrence. Also, do the easier portion of the run after this part. The first time you try it, start with the hill circuit; work toward tackling it with up to an hour already in your legs.
This kind of run is especially useful prepping for Boston or another hilly marathon (I know from experience).
2) The Lumpy Tempo
This is a shorter, more intense version of the above session. Instead of keeping the pace as close to “conversational” as possible, use this workout to learn to ride the anaerobic edge without the cushion of a flat, uniform surface.
Start with two loops, and treat them like a 5K you’re holding back in because the real race is in two days. So, no slamming down the hills or killing yourself on the inclines, because you want to feel like the effort is about the same at all points. You can add a third or even a fourth loop once you’re really fit.
This is invaluable training for the gears-changing demands of cross-country, but all runners benefit from developing a sense of the rough aerobic-anaerobic boundary, regardless of event or season.
3) Old-School Repeats
This is a year-round standby in countless worldwide guises. After a warmup of at least 10-12 minutes, run up the hill with even and an effort approximating that of a 3K-to-5K race. Jog to the bottom taking about one and a half the amount of time it took to reach the top.
If you distribute your effort right, you should feel like the end, while not necessarily nigh, would be welcome after about six round trips. You can do up to ten reps in one session; if you start hankering for longer recoveries early on, reduce the effort slightly and try to hit eight.
4) Shuttle Climbs
One way to practice running “over the top” is to run up your 400m hill at 3K to 5K race effort, turn around and jog three-fourths of the way down, run 400m in the direction you started, and repeat this until you finish with a flat 300 jog followed by a flat 400. You’re therefore progressively shaving off portions of the incline as a reward of sorts for not quitting, while learning to maintain effort and change gears as you transition from incline to flat.
Schematically, the workout is 400 up; 300 up/100m flat; 200m up/200m flat; 100m up/300m flat; and 400 m flat, all with about 300m between in the opposite direction, coming back down the hill less and less with each rep.
If you’re not cooked after one set, you can start another, which should give you a half-mile jog to the very bottom. My chief memory of the one time I did this is that it went by quickly and watched a sunset, both of which are usually good signs.
Kevin Beck has written extensively for Running Times, Competitor, Triathlete, Men’s Fitness, Motiv Running, Marathon & Beyond, the New York Road Runners and elsewhere. The editor of Run Strong (2005) and the co-author of Young Runners at the Top (2017), Beck has coached high school cross country and adult athletes ranging from everyday marathoners to the occasional Olympian. The runner-up at the 2004 USATF 50K Road Championships, Beck holds personal bests of 14:58 for 5K, 51:32 for 10 miles, 1:08:29 for the half-marathon and 2:24:17 for the marathon.