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The Sisyphus Session Hill Workout

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

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

For those who aren’t quite up to date on their Greek mythology, a quick refresher: Sisyphus was a greedy and deceitful mythical 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 could ever reach the top. Despite his best efforts, he was forced to keep pushing the rock up the hill 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 the top. And stopping. Eventually.

One Workout for All

The Sisyphus Session is one of the bread-and-butter strength-building sessions I like to have athletes do toward the end of base-building, 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 name of the workout implies, you’ll be running up and down the hill a number of times. To get started, you 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 10–20-second strides on flat ground.

Workout Overview

• 30 seconds uphill @ 5K pace, jog down

• 60 seconds uphill @ 5K pace, jog down

• 90 seconds (1:30) uphill @ 5K pace, jog down

• 120 seconds (2:00) uphill @ 5K pace

Walk down. Recover. Repeat the full set up to 3 times.

long hill effort workout
Find a hill that’s ideally 800 to 1000 meters long (Photo: 101 Degrees West)

Effort-Based

After warming up, run up the hill for 30 seconds at roughly 5K race effort, then jog back down to the start for recovery. Note, the key word in that instruction is “effort.”

If you typically wear a GPS watch when you train, don’t pay attention to the pace. 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.

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 3 more miles?” If the answer is “no,” then back off the effort 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 5K-pace 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 forefeet, lift your knees and drive your arms back. You should have the sensation of being pulled up the hill by a climbing harness attached to your hips.

When you hit the 60-second mark, turn around and jog back down to the start.

The University School of Nashville cross country team jogging down between uphill repeats in the Sisyphus Session.
The University School of Nashville cross country team jogging down between uphill repeats in the Sisyphus Session. (Photo: University School of Nashville Cross Country)

At the bottom, 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 after the 90-second climb, head back up the hill for 2 minutes at the same effort.

Pat yourself on the back when you reach the top. You’ve finished the first set. Walk down to the start, grab some water, recover.

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 is likely plenty of work the first time out. For more advanced runners looking to build some early-season strength, you can handle two to three sets (10-15 minutes of uphill running). If you’re feeling paticularly ambitious, try a fourth set, but for most runners, three will be more than enough. This is a tough session!

Variations

Besides choosing the number of sets you complete, you can make this session easier or harder by altering the length of the climbs.

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). This is a good option for easing into hill work, allowing you to do more sets with less training stress — unless you choose to hit each climb harder, changing it into more of a power workout.

curvy hill workout
Using a shorter hill can make it an easier session – or more of a power workout. (Photo: 101 Degrees West)

Another option is to 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, for experienced runners.

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 an article originally published May 2016.