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Hill Training for Runners

It is 100% normal for runners, new and experienced alike, to start feeling a little green when “hill training” comes up. If you see this on your training schedule and it makes you somewhat nervous, you’re not alone. I’ve been there. But you shouldn’t be afraid! Hill training is a great way to improve your running, and you should consider incorporating more into your running program.

In this article, we’ll cover everything about hill training, particularly focusing on new runners and flatlanders who have never tried it. By the end of the article, you’ll have a good idea of why to do it in the first place, and some practical tips for incorporating it into your training.

How to train on hills for runners

Why Do Hill Workouts

Hill workouts are interval sessions done on an incline (declines can also be included!). Speed workouts in general are easier on your body than track work. Even if your race doesn’t have hills, training on hills will make you faster and stronger without the added stress on your body of 800m repeats.

Overall Benefits

Simply put, hill workouts increase your overall strength. Aerobically, hills add intensity to your workout with less impact. That means that you’re working harder, but not in a way that stresses your body unnecessarily.

Physically, hills help to build stronger muscles and increase leg speed. If you feel like you’ve plateaued in your running, there’s a good chance that adding some hill workouts to your program will take you to the next level. Your legs need to work harder to get your body up the elevation gain. That power, when translated back to flat ground, converts into power and speed.

Mentally, hills are great for dealing with boredom. I’ve always found that I’m more negative and don’t like to push as much when I’m running on flat terrain, but if I’m running up a hill, I’m more consistent and focused.

Plus, at the end of the hill, you’ll reach the top, and that always gives me a sense of accomplishment. I feel better running the same distance up a hill as compared to flat ground, because I made it up the hill, something that was hard.

Speed

You’ll get faster because your muscles, specifically your quads, will become stronger. Stronger legs and a stronger gait are everything in running, from knee drive to toe-off. In fact, the muscles that you use for sprints are the same ones that you use for hills, meaning that hill training equals speedwork.

Endurance

You’ll take longer to fatigue as you improve muscle elasticity, thus increasing your endurance and cardiovascular abilities. You’ll run harder and faster on both flat and hilly ground.

Hill training is a form of resistance training. If you hate the idea of lifting weights, hill training is a great way to build your muscles that doesn’t require weights.

Injury Prevention

Hills are great for injury prevention, too, because you can’t heel strike running uphill. Go ahead and try it, and you’ll see that running uphill naturally puts you on your toes and forefoot due to your shorter strides. In addition, running uphill requires you to use your glutes and hamstrings, while running downhill requires stability through the knee joint, engaging the lateral and medial quads.

Because you’ve trained these muscles while hill training, they will be more ready in future runs or races, thus helping to prevent injury because your muscles are trained and strong enough for whatever physical barrier you put in front of them.

Calories and Muscles

The short-term gain of hill training is more calories burned and the long-term gain is building more muscle. If you’re someone who loves to eat (or drink!), hill training will help you burn that many more calories.

Obviously, the number of extra calories that you burn will depend on the length of the hill as well as the incline, but you’ll definitely have an increased fat-burning potential.

Strengthen Your Upper Body

A side benefit of hill training is that you’ll get in a little bit of an upper body workout. Because you have to swing your arms to push up the hill, you’ll improve your ability to engage your core and develop additional upper body strength.

Hill training certainly isn’t a replacement for strength training, but you’ll see some additional benefits in your upper body from hills that you wouldn’t see on flat terrain. And that might encourage you to keep up the strength training!

Tips for Hill Training

Hill training is definitely worth it, so we’ve compiled some tips, especially if it’s new to you. Just remember to have good form when you run up hills—optimize your stride by making it shorter, keep your pace consistent, swing your arms, keep excellent posture, and make sure that you’re properly fueled.

When to Add Hill Training for New Runners

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different responses for when to add hill training as a newer runner. But everyone agrees that it isn’t something that you should incorporate immediately in your training.

Instead, make sure that you have a base of consistently running several times a week for a couple weeks before adding in hill training. Also, when you get to the point of incorporating hill training, start small.

Slowing work yourself up to harder hills. Start with a smaller hill and then consider adding in several repeats of a short, hard hill at the end of an easy run and walk down for recovery. This will get you in the groove of hill training.

Ideally, hills are ¼ to ½ mile with a 4-7% incline. But you’ll probably want to start with hills that are a little bit shorter and with a little bit less of an incline. Make sure that you work up to the ideal hill, though!

Use a Treadmill If You Live in a Flat Area

Hill training is great, but what if you live in an area that doesn’t have hills? First, I’d encourage you to be on the lookout. You might think that your area doesn’t have hills, but there is a good chance that they are out there somewhere.

For example, you might think that Texas doesn’t have hills and is fairly flat, but that isn’t completely accurate. Even the flattest places have areas that undulate up and down. It doesn’t take much for a short section of road to count as a hill in your workout.

But if you really don’t inclines near you, or if they are far away, you can always use a treadmill. A basic treadmill workout includes a warm up, 4 repeats of a medium-hard run up hill and walk down, and then a cool down.

Once you’ve gotten used to this workout, you can Google other treadmill hill workouts, and you’ll find a lot out there depending on your training goals and current fitness level.

4 Other Types of Workouts

In addition to your basic hill workout on the treadmill, there are four other basic types of workouts for hills. Depending on your goals and level, you might consider incorporating these into your training, starting off with something shorter and working up to a longer hill.

Short Hills or Hill Sprints

A hill is considered to be a short hill if it takes around 30 seconds to run up. For your workout, a steeper short hill will be better. For a hill sprint, go at an all-out pace (making sure to use good form) and then walk down for recovery. Do this for 8-10 reps.

While you’re going to be pushing yourself pretty hard for those 30 seconds, the good thing is that the hill is short. You just have to remind yourself that it will be over very quickly.

Medium Hills

A hill is considered to be medium-sized if it takes 60-90 seconds to run up. Tackle these at your 5k-10k pace. Because you are pushing the pace a bit more, seek out hills with less of an incline than your short hills. 4-7% is perfect.

Once at the top, slow jog or walk down. Complete 5-10 reps per workout for medium hills.

Long Hills

A long hill takes 90 seconds to 3 minutes (or more) to run up. Because of the length, look for hills with a shallow grade – 4-6%. It’s likely that the grade will vary over the course of the interval, and that’s perfectly fine. Run these workouts at tempo/threshold pace, and then slow jog or walk down for 3-5 reps.

Mixed Hill Runs

Mixed hill runs are a great way to add some variety into your hill training. In this way, it’s a type of fartlek run where it’s really more “hill play” than “speed play” or maybe a combination of both.

Find a course with a mix of rolling hills, and then incorporate speed work in various parts of your run, both uphill and downhill. Mixed hill runs are more spontaneous and spur-of-the-moment, making them more creative and fun.

If you’re up for the challenge, you should definitely start incorporating mixed hill runs into your training. If you can do that, you’ll find that you’ll become much faster running flat courses.

Downhill Training

For every time that you have to run up a hill, you’ll also have to run down. Unfortunately, although you’ll be able to make up some time running downhill, you won’t completely be able to make up the time that it took you to run uphill.

Running downhill can feel great, as you fly down much faster than going up hill. However, you are putting a lot of pressure on your body as you run downhill. Don’t take downhills too hard or your quads will exact their revenge the next day.

Downhill running is a great way to improve leg speed and turnover and increase muscle strength, thus eliminating soreness from harder workouts.

One of my friends who runs regularly encouraged me to love the downhill, telling me to let my arms down to my sides, relax, and get my breathing under control. And I’ve found that the more I’ve let myself enjoy the downhill, the more benefits I’ve received from it.

Workout: 6x800m “Quad-Bangers”

Find a hill with approximately 1/2 mile, or 800m, of gentle uphill (4-6%). After warming up, run to the top, then take a couple minutes to recover. After you are recovered, run hard downhill, back to the starting point. Repeat this set 3 times, so that you run 3 uphill intervals and 3 downhill. You’ll get the strength and cardio work of running uphill, and the turnover and mechanics workout of the downhills. Besides, in a race, you’re going to have to race both sides of a hill. Get used to running hard both uphill and downhill.

In the end, hill training is a great addition to any running program. Yes, it is hard and can be a challenge to motivate yourself to do it. But it has so many benefits that it would be a shame to pass up the challenge.

If you’re a newer runner, make sure that you have a solid base of running before you start incorporating hill training, but don’t be afraid of it! Start small and soon you’ll find yourself flying up those hills.

The Wired Runner