4 Hill Workouts To Boost Your Speed

Adding them into your training will translate to better form and faster times - even on flat land.

Cindy Kuzma |

Hills may loom large and daunting in your path. But take on the challenge to climb them, and you’ll find a more powerful and efficient stride, which can net faster times, on the other side. “Physically, training on hills builds muscle strength, and hill sprints or repeats can improve running economy, which translates into less energy expended over the course of a longer distance race,” says Lisa Reichmann, a certified running coach.

Coaches like Reichmann have long touted the benefits of hill training; and now, science can back the belief, thanks to recent research by Derek Ferley, PhD, director of sports science research and sports performance training at the Avera Sports Institute.

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Ferley, a runner himself, always incorporated hills into his own half-marathon and marathon training; but back in 2010, he was surprised to find a lack of peer-reviewed proof of the effectiveness of inclines in exercise science literature. So he fired up his facility’s research-grade treadmills to fill the gap.

In his 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Ferley asked one group of randomly assigned runners to crank up the incline and complete hill workouts twice a week, while another group performed faster repetitions on level ground (and a control group kept up their typical training).

The result: six weeks of incline training boosted runners’ top speed, and allowed them to sustain it 32 per cent longer than they could at the start of the study.

What explains the dramatic result? First, the intensity of uphill intervals improves your lactate threshold. That means your body produces less muscle-burning lactic acid at the same pace, and you’re better able to buffer the acids you do churn out. Flat intervals do this too; but with hills, you don’t have to move as fast to reap the same rewards, Ferley explains.

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Charging up slopes also asks more of your muscles and nerves than sprinting on level ground, which speeds up the connections between mind and body and makes you more explosive. This ability to summon strength fast boosts how efficiently your hardworking muscles use oxygen to power you forward – a key factor for success.

Ferley has spent the past five years tinkering with duration, grade, and pace in hopes of finding the optimal hill-training formula. While he says he’s not quite finished yet, you can use what he’s discovered already – along with additional tips from top coaches – to take your running to new heights. Here’s how.

1. For Speed On The Road

The bulk of Ferley’s research is focused on heading up hills as fast as possible in 30-second bouts. These speedy climbs work similarly to plyometric moves that build explosive strength and allow 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

Do It >
up with 2 to 3km of easy running, then do dynamic drills like high knees, skips, and lunges before adding incline. Take each 30-second hill repeat at a nearly all-out speed (you should be wondering if you can make it at the 25-second mark). Rest with a walk or easy jog for 2 to 3 minutes in between. Start with 5 to 8 reps, and work your way up to 12 to 14.

2. For 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, such as runners’ point of exhaustion. And soldiering through a lengthier ascent better prepares you mentally for more technical courses.

The Workout > 3-minute hill intervals at a 10% incline

Do It > After a warm-up and drills (see left), take these 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 2 minutes). Jog or walk 3 minutes to rest – or longer, if your heart is still pounding – then repeat. Start with 2 or 3 repetitions, and work up to 6.

3. For Better Biomechanics

Even shorter uphill charges can help you practise better form without wearing you down, says Jim Walker, PhD, sports science director at the Orthopaedic Speciality Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. Inclines force you to drive your knees high and land with your foot underneath you.

The Workout >
10- to 15-second hill repeats at a 5% to 15% grade

Do It > At the end of an easy 5- to 6-kay run, catch your breath before going uphill. Don’t worry about pace; instead, focus on form – running tall, swinging your arms from hip to chin, and engaging your glutes. Walk back down and completely recover, then go again. Start with 5 or 6 reps and work up to as many as 20 – the last should feel just as springy as the first, Walker says.

4. To Crush A Hilly Course

Strength and efficiency help, but racing well on rolling hills also requires discipline and smart pacing, says Reichmann (a Boston Marathon finisher). Practise by doing long runs on a route mimicking the 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 kays

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 to recover. Run easy for 2 to 3 minutes (advanced runners can skip this), then run 2 to 5km at goal race pace before a 2-kay cooldown. This trains both fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibres to hit goal race pace, Reichmann says.

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