Hill Running

Hill training can be an invaluable part of any training program, regardless of the race distance or time you aim to run. Running up and down hills provides a number of benefits to make you a stronger, faster, more efficient and mentally tough runner.

RELATED: What’s the deal with interval training?

Regardless of your speed, running (up) hills improves the cardiovascular system and increases the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles. Running hills also develops lower body strength, forces you to adopt good running form and activates the core since you’re running against gravity. Running hills also puts less stress on the body than, say, track intervals. Because of that, it’s a safe way of doing harder efforts without increased risk of injury. Finally, put simply, running hills hurts! It feels tough and tests your mental fortitude. Few things are more difficult in running than powering through a hard uphill interval, but believe us when we say that the benefits are worth it. That’s why you shouldn’t stop until you reach the top.

There are many ways you can incorporate hill training to create an optimal workout, but most of them fall into one of three common categories:

Hill sprints

These are short, all-out sprints lasting only 10-15 seconds. The best way to do them is by running up a relatively steep hill of about five or higher per cent grade. Run them as hard and fast as you can so that you’re almost completely out of breath at the end of each sprint. Practice quick, short steps and use your arms and upper body to drive you forward. (Really pump those arms!)

Sample workout: Run easy for 15 minutes then complete five to ten all-out hill sprints, walking or jogging slowly down the hill in between efforts. Cool down for another 15 minutes afterward.

Hill intervals

Usually done as a workout, (up) hill intervals are done as multiple repeats each lasting between 30 seconds up to about three minutes and which use a medium grade hill. It’s important to aim to maintain a consistent speed throughout. If possible, try to finish a bit faster at the end, or at least try not to be much slower than you started. You should be breathing deeply and your heart will be pounding at the top of each interval but it’s not an all-out effort and you should be able to recover during the slow jog back to the bottom. Remember to stand tall, don’t lean with your (upper) body but instead use your hips. Increase your leg turnover and also focus on driving your knees upward and forward.

Although less common, it’s also valuable to practice running downhill to help become a more efficient downhill runner. Although it seems “easier” to run downhill, most runners don’t take full advantage of the hill and end up using poor and inefficient form. The most common mistake is to lean backward in a braking motion. This slows you down and causes the eccentric muscle contractions that cause muscle damage and post-run soreness (especially to the quadriceps). Instead, try to keep your body perpendicular to the ground by leaning slightly forward and again increase your cadence to match your faster speed. Finally, use your arms to keep balance as you speed up.

Sample workout: Complete two sets of 5 x 60-second repeats up a long hill of medium grade with a five-minute recovery between sets. Aim to run each interval at, or around, marathon pace. After a week or two, try doing two sets of 3 x 90 seconds and eventually work up to 2 x [3 x 120 seconds].

For each workout, be sure to warm up and cool down following the intervals.

Rolling hills

This is not so much a specific workout as much as a regular run that incorporates a hilly route. Run your weekly easy or long run on a route that covers plenty of rolling hills. For an added challenge, aim to run hard up and down the hills at a faster than normal pace, using the flat sections to recover by running easy.

As with any workout, you should notice that the effort begins to feel easier after several attempts. Rather than increase the speed at which you run them, try to increase the number of repeats or hills that you run to get an added benefit. If done right, hills are an excellent addition—perhaps a substitution—for traditional forms of speed work on the track or road. 

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