Workout of the Week: Cruise Combo Intervals

This challenging combination of mile-plus-hill repeats builds strength and hones the art of control.

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This interval session offers many of the same benefits as a long progression run or marathon-pace run, but without the requirement of a long and possibly dismal grind if conditions are challenging. It blends faster-than-tempo-pace running with some controlled hill work, broken apart by carefully spaced recovery jogs. More than anything, it emphasizes the need to be able to work at close to threshold pace without crashing despite including systematic bursts of intensity. Also, by making strategic use of hill work, the workout helps instill patience and discipline.

Workout Summary

3–4 x (1 mile + 400m hill)


3– 4 x (5–6 minutes flat + 90–120 seconds hill)

The workout consists of three to four sets of one mile on a flat loop at 10K race pace followed immediately by a 400-meter climb at the same, or a slightly faster, pace, with a 2–3 minute recovery jog to the bottom.

You’ll need a hill about a quarter-mile long, with a grade in the range of 3 to 5 percent (about 40 to 60 feet of vertical gain over the 400-meter climb). You’ll also need a mile of flat road to cover before heading right into the hill portion; this can be a loop or an out-and-back, and need not be exactly a mile as long as it takes you at least five minutes at 10K race pace.

Background and Benefits

This is primarily a marathon-centric workout, although it is also solid preparation for cross-country running or anything 5K or longer.

One set, including the recovery, takes a runner capable of a 40:00 10K about 10:30 to finish (6:25 for the mile + 1:35 for the hill + 2:30 for the jog). This means the whole session will take most runners at least half an hour and, for those who choose to do four sets, over 45 minutes. This in turn implies that running each loop at a consistent pace means being aggressive but cautious.

By putting the hill at the end of each repetition, the workout forces, or at least encourages, you to pace yourself sensibly on the flat parts. Similarly, you can’t trash yourself on the hill portions, because that’s only part of each repetition and the rest jog is supposed to be exactly that — a trot, not a stagger, back to your starting point.

combo intervals
After the flat mile, head straight up the hill Photo: 101 Degrees West

The Workout

Warm up with at least two miles of easy running, which you should also do after the final loop. Understand that if you have a medium-long run of no longer than 10 miles planned for the same week and you do four sets of this workout, you would probably be wise to combine the two, as 2 miles + 4 times 1.5 miles + 2 miles = 10 miles.

When you head into the hill, your approach should be that of someone making an unlikely move in the middle of a 10K, or a confident move on a hill near the end. At the top, you shouldn’t feel as if you could go right back into 10K pace (unless you were about to kick into the finish). Put differently, you should feel like you do with less than a mile to go in a 5K: gasping, but not desperate, and in need of the recovery jog.

When you get to the bottom, try to transition right into 10K pace. Many runners find that after the first loop, they tend to start the second 10K-pace mile too fast, so hold back a bit and settle into the pace.

When the session is over, you should feel as tired as you would after a 10K race, so don’t do this one within ten days or more of a goal race.

Tips and Tricks

If possible, set up a hydration station (or a friend with arms) about halfway up the hill. This way, you can grab a bottle on the jog down the hill and ingest whatever you normally use for mid-workout hydration and fueling. By the time you’re ready to start running fast again, the drink will have settled somewhat in your stomach.

You can probably skip the hydration set-up if the workout portion of the day doesn’t exceed 45 minutes, as long as you top off after the warm-up jog and before the cool-down. But if you’re preparing for a marathon, it never hurts to practice drinking repeatedly in the middle of an intense running session.


One variant of this session involves either increasing or cutting back the length of the hill portion. For example, if you’re aiming for three loops, instead of a full 400-meter climb at the end, do either 200m-300m-400m or the reverse. Runners can also go by time on the hill (or on both parts) instead, e.g., 6 minutes on the flat + a 2-minute climb + a jog down, or climbs consisting of some combination of 60-, 90-, and 120-sec. hills.