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My Favorite Hills: Grass and Graveyard

A highly-successful cross country coach shares two classic hill workouts he uses to prepare 5K runners to excel.

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: Scott Bliss, head coach of Champlain Valley Union High School, Vermont, for 23 years. Has won 23 State Championships (boys XC 5 times, girls XC 17 times and boys track once), 6 New England Championships (all girls), 3 NXN team qualifiers (girls) and 3 NXN Individual qualifiers (2 girls & 1 boy).

Photo: Scott Bliss

Hill #1: NRG Hill, Hinesburg, Vermont

Length: 160m
Elevation Gain: 58 Feet
Average Grade: 10.9% (steepest grade, middle segment, 18–20%)
Surface: Mowed Grass
The Workout: 8–10 repeats with walk and jog recovery
When: 10–12 days before an early-season race
How: Aim to maintain consistent race-pace effort up and over the top of the hill, and pace yourself to try to run every climb in about the same time.

NRG Hill
Photo: Strava

Our cross country team basically has two classics that we do every season. The first is called NRG hills because it is a hill that is in a field right next to the company NRG Systems which is a solar/wind company.

It is a fairly steep hill that is a bit over 150 meters in length. What is nice about this hill is it is a mowed path loop of about 400 meters total. The runners complete the hill then walk down a very steep downhill and then jog their recovery around the loop until they get to the base of the climb.

NRG Hill men
Photo: Scott Bliss

We will normally do a range of about 8–10 of these for the top kids. Our focus always in our hillwork is being consistent with the effort. We do this to help them bring this same attitude into a race, so that we avoid charging the hill, then struggling to continue to push after cresting the climb. We want to be consistent and then not let up as we go over the top. That is partly why we always have a coach at the top of the climb so that they don’t stop (start to recover) before they go over the top of the climb.

We do this usually about 12 days out from the Manchester Invitational in New Hampshire, about a month into the season. That course has some hills that we find similar to the NRG hill, so this workout gets us some hill work that we need for Manchester and also for our state course later in the season.

Hill #2: Graveyard Hill, Hinesburg, Vermont

Length: 420m
Elevation Gain: 100 Feet
Average Grade: 6.8% (grade varies from 2–14%)
Surface: Paved
The workout: 4–6 repeats
When: 10–12 days out from a key late-season race
How: Aim to maintain consistent race-pace effort through the variations in slope and over the top of the hill to the finish. Try to run every repeat in about the same time.

Graveyard Hill
Photo: Strava

The second classic hill is in a graveyard so we call it….wait for it….graveyard hills.

The hill is approximately 400 meters long and is on asphalt. The grade changes periodically so it is never consistent. Gradual at the bottom for about 100 meters then gets steeper for probably 150-200 meters and the last 100 or so it does some stair stepping where it will be steep for a short period and level out and do that a few times. The recovery is a slow jog down to the bottom but, like the NRG hill, it’s kind of nice because the way the roads are set up in the cemetery the runners can take other routes down and are only on the hill they go up for a very short period of their recovery.

male runners on graveyard hill
Graveyard hill repeats Photo: Scott Bliss

We do this 12 days out from our state meet which has a very challenging climb in the 4th kilometer but also has a 2nd kilometer that kind of does that stair-step kind of climbing throughout the entire kilometer.

This is a challenging workout so the volume will depend but probably no more than 4–6 repeats for the top kids.

On both hills, we are getting the normal strength benefit out of this that anyone would get out of any hill workout. There definitely is a strength/speed piece to it — especially on the NRG hill with the steep incline and not having the impact of the road.

I also think that one of the main benefits of these workouts is the mental piece. When they go up the big hill at our State Meet course they can look back to the fact that they were able to do 6 Graveyard hills and they only have to go up the race hill once. That’s why we tried to find hills that are similar to what we race on. We are trying to prepare them to race and not just worrying about the system we are training. When you do this workout, find a hill with a profile similar to one you’ll need to tackle in an upcoming race.