Speed & Strength! The Benefits of Training on Varied Terrain

Spend time on inclines, flats, and on routes with both, to build speed as well as strength.

Kelly Bastone |

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Runners would do well to remember that when considering go-to routes. The terrain we train on shapes our strengths and weaknesses, which is why smart racers make sure to log training runs that mimic their course’s grades. Hills use different muscle groups and movement patterns than flats, while rolling terrain requires your body to adjust to short bursts of uphill effort (and downhill recovery).

When our runs always follow the same elevation profiles, we may develop imbalances that inhibit performance, says running coach and author Lynn Gray. “Runners always become better when they can develop a range of different skills and muscle groups,” she says. Here’s how to maximise the benefits of each terrain type – and how to vary your hill diet for well-rounded running performance.


Hills are essentially speedwork in disguise,” says running coach Nick Welch. “Good uphill running form requires the same knee drive and arm action that you need to sprint effectively, and resisting gravity develops leg strength, just like in the weight room.”

The Workout:
Find a long hill that’s steep enough to get your muscles burning but still lets you take a full, powerful stride. Run four or five uphill repeats, each one lasting three to six minutes, at the fastest pace you can maintain throughout the workout without losing control of your breathing and form. “This really builds stamina and strength in the quads, glutes, and calves,” says Welch. Long hills also develop the mental toughness required in racing. Think quality over quantity: Welch recommends one or two long hill workouts every two weeks. (The goal is to add variety, not to make hills your routine.)

Seek other terrain if You’re due for a recovery run, you want to practise locked-in pacing, or you have injuries (such as Achilles tendinitis or plantar fasciitis) that are aggravated by hills.


Level terrain may be aerobically easy, but it’s harder on your hamstrings (which perform 40 per cent of the work on flats, compared to 20 per cent when climbing hills). With no hills to throw you off, flat roads or treadmills are the perfect places to practise good form, breathing, and pacing, “which is the key to succeeding at longer distances,” says Gray.

The Workout:

Warm up with five minutes of easy running, followed by two to three strides (30-second bursts of race-pace running, separated by 30 seconds of rest). Then run at 90 per cent effort (about 5-K race pace) for 30 seconds, at 80 per cent effort (like your 10-K pace) for three minutes, and finish with a 15-second sprint at 95 per cent effort. “Pay attention to your form throughout, and really focus on pumping your arms during that final burst of speed,” says Gray. Recover with five to eight minutes of easy running, then repeat one to four more times.

Seek other terrain if You’re racing on hills and need to mimic that challenge, you’re developing injuries (“the sameness of level terrain can feed overuse syndromes,” says Gray), or you’re craving improvement. “The power and strength that hills develop is great for leaping off a plateau,” Gray says.


Rolling hills aren’t usually steep or long enough to truly challenge uphill running muscles or require hill-specific form, so they can’t take the place of hill workouts. But, says Welch, the changing grade does engage various muscle groups and helps eliminate weaknesses – which is important whether your goal is overall fitness or a fast finishing time. Rolling terrain also burns more kilojoules than flat routes. And because it regularly prompts your body to adopt varying body positions and foot strikes, rolling terrain might lessen the likelihood of injury during recovery and base-building sessions.

The workout:
Schedule two to three weekly 30-minute runs on rolling terrain, and try turning the uphills into fartleks: increase your effort on the climbs, and recover on the descents.

Seek other terrain if You’re racing on a course that’s notoriously flat or hilly, especially if your target event is a half or full marathon. You’ll need to log one or two weekly runs (preferably including your long run) on terrain that’s comparable to your racecourse. Otherwise, you can end up feeling undertrained on race day – just as hills crush runners accustomed to flats, level courses can leave hill-attuned racers feeling dead-legged.

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