4 Hill Running Workouts to Improve Your Speed

Adding inclines to your training will lead to better form and faster times—even on flats.


You may try to avoid running hills at all costs or feel tired just thinking about them. But hill running has serious benefits. Think of it like finding a pot of gold on the other side of the incline: Mastering hill running leads you to a more powerful, efficient stride that helps you hit faster times.

“Physically, training on hills builds muscle strength,” says running coach Lisa Levin. “And hill sprints or repeats can help improve running economy, which translates into less energy expended over the course of a longer-distance race.”

Coaches like Levin and Julie Sapper, who coaches at Run Farther and Faster, have long touted hills’ benefits. And science backs up the practice, thanks to research by Dr Derek Ferley, director of sports science research and sports performance training at the Avera Sports Institute.

Ferley is a runner himself who’d always incorporated hills into his own half marathon and marathon training, but was surprised when a search in the early 2010s returned almost no peer-reviewed proof of inclines’ effectiveness in the exercise science.

In one study, Ferley randomly assigned runners to crank up the incline and do hill running workouts twice a week while others did faster repetitions on level ground (and a control group kept up their typical training). The result: six weeks of hills boosted runners’ top speed and allowed them to sustain it 32% longer.

There are a few reasons for this benefit. For one, the intensity of uphill intervals improves what’s called your lactate threshold. That means your body produces less muscle-burning lactic acid at the same swift paces (plus, you’re better able to buffer the acids you do churn out). Flat intervals did this too, but with hills, you don’t have to move as fast to reap the same rewards, Ferley says.

Hill running also asks more of your muscles and nerves than sprinting on level ground, speeding the connections between body and mind that make you more explosive. This ability to summon strength swiftly boosts running economy, a measure of how efficiently your hard-working muscles use oxygen to power you forward and a key factor in distance-running success.

Ferley spent the past few years tinkering with duration, grade, and pace in hopes of finding the optimal hill-training formula. While he says he’s not quite finished, you can already use his findings — along with coaches’ experiences — to reach new heights and perfect your hill running. To do that, try these four hill running workouts.

4 Hill Running Workouts, Designed to Help Your Reach Your Goals

1. The Goal: Gain Speed on the Road
The bulk of Ferley’s research has focused on running uphill as fast as possible in 30-second bouts. These speedy climbs work similarly to plyometric exercises that build explosive strength and train your muscles to fire more quickly and forcefully on any type of terrain, he notes.
The workout: 30-second hill sprints at a 5% to 10% incline
How to do it: Warm up with 1.5 to 2,5 kilometres of easy running, then do dynamic drills such as high knees, skips, and lunges before beginning the incline. Take each 30-second hill repeat at a nearly all-out speed (at about the 25-second mark, you should be wondering if you’ll make it to 30 seconds). Rest with a walk or an easy jog for 2 to 3 minutes in between. Start with 5 to 8 repetitions and work your way up to 12 to 14.

2. The Goal: Tackle Long Trail Runs
Though not quite as effective as shorter, faster inclines in Ferley’s studies, longer hill repeats still boosted many key fitness factors (including runners’ point of exhaustion). And soldiering through a lengthier ascent prepares you better mentally for more-technical courses, he notes.
The workout: 3-minute hill intervals at a 10% incline
How to do it: After a warmup and dynamic drills, take the longer repeats at a pace slightly slower than all-out (in Ferley’s testing, it worked out to about 70% of the speed runners could sustain for two minutes). Jog or walk three minutes to rest — or longer if your heart still feels like it’s pounding — then repeat. Start with 2 to 3 repetitions and work up to 6.

3. The Goal: Better Biomechanics
Use even shorter uphill charges to practice better form without wearing yourself down, advises Dr Jim Walker, former sports science director at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital. Inclines force you to drive your knees high and land with your foot underneath you (versus out in front of you, an error biomechanists refer to as overstriding). As a result, the angle between your thighs when you push off for the next step increases, and more of the energy you generate moves forward instead of upward — making you more efficient while reducing impact forces that may cause injury.
The workout: 10- to 15-second hill repetitions at a 5% to 15% grade
How to do it: At the end of an easy 5 to 6 kilometer run, catch your breath before heading uphill. Don’t worry about your pace; instead, focus on form—running tall, swinging your arms from your hip to your chin, and squeezing your glutes. Walk back down and rest until you’ve completely recovered, then go again. Start with 5 to 6 repetitions and work up to as many as 20 — the last one should feel just as springy as the first, Walker says.

4. The Goal: Crush a Hilly Course
Strength and efficiency help, but racing well on rolling hills also requires discipline and smart pacing, say Levin, who’s run the notoriously undulating Boston Marathon. You can practice by doing your long runs on a route mimicking your race course, or with a session that pushes the pace after a series of climbs.
The workout: 60-second hill repetitions at a 4% to 5% grade, followed by race-pace miles
How to do it: Warm up for 3 to 5 easy kilometres, then do 6 to 8 hill repeats at an effort of 7 out of 10. Jog downhill for the recovery. Take 1 kilometre easy (more advanced runners can skip this step) then run 1.5 to 5 kilometres at goal race pace before a 1 to 2 kilometre cooldown. “This workout fatigues fast-twitch muscle fibers on the hills, requiring recruitment and development of slow-twitch muscle fibers to hold race pace after the hill repeats,” Levin says.

Tips to Improve Your Hill Running Potential

Don’t Diss the Treadmill
Most modern treadmills offer a perfectly feasible alternative to outdoor hills, especially for runners who live where it’s flat. Plus, you can program them to mimic the profile of your goal race course, Walker points out. Choose a machine that’s in front of a mirror and you can keep tabs on your form — your chest should stay tall, and your arms shouldn’t cross the middle of your body.

Climb with Caution
Ferley doesn’t necessarily advise every athlete to ascend twice a week, as participants in his studies did. Adding too much intensity too quickly, whether it’s through hills or flat intervals, can increase your risk of injury. Limit hill workouts to no more than once a week (once every two to three weeks if you’re injury-prone), Sapper and Levin recommend.

Descend With Care
Going downhill can burn out your quads quickly — unless you practice. Incorporate descents into your training too, especially if you’re targeting a hilly race. On your way down, relax and lean forward from the ankles (leaning backwards, while instinctive, is akin to tapping the brakes, increasing the impact on your legs). Looking down toward your feet can help, Sapper and Levin say.


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