Hill Training for Runners

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Hill training for runners is like going to the dentist. Nobody really enjoys it… But it needs to be done! Whether a beginner or an experienced runner, hill training is a great way to improve your performance.

The problem with hill repeats is that they can be intimidating. But there’s good news—if you prepare well beforehand, hill runs don’t have to be a chore. And if you approach them with the right attitude, they can be quite fun!

Here’s our advice on how to do proper hill training for runners and some interesting info on why you should be doing it in the first place. Plus, we’ll cover how to incorporate it into your schedule.

What Is a Hill Workout?

Hill workouts are exactly like they sound—running up and down hills. Or, more specifically, runs performed on an incline rather than a flat surface. That means you can do hill training outdoors or on a treadmill with the right incline.

The Benefits of Hill Workouts

You might wonder why hill workouts are important, especially if you live and run somewhere that’s quite flat. Most races avoid hills, so including hill workouts in your training might seem impractical.

However, hill workouts offer a ton of benefits that you don’t get when you’re running on a flat surface. Do them right and often enough, and you’ll see noticeable progress in your running performance.

Here’s what you can expect when including regular hill training in your running schedule.

  • Better Running Form: Running uphill encourages a forefoot strike and a slight forward lean. This trains your body into a more efficient running gait, which can be replicated on flat ground.
  • Improved Cadence: Hills naturally shorten your stride, which makes your stride more efficient. The better your cadence, the faster you’ll run.
  • Builds Muscle Strength: Increases power and activates the glutes and leg muscles differently from running on a flat surface.
  • Builds Endurance: Hill runs are high-intensity workouts, so they help to improve cardiovascular endurance. Because they’re also increasing muscle strength, they build muscular endurance.
  • Lower Risk of Injuries: Uphill running, in particular, reduces impact on your joints, noticeably lowering the risk of injury during training.
  • Burns More Calories: The higher intensity nature of these kinds of running workouts means you can burn more calories during a workout, or burn the same amount of calories as usual in less time.
  • Improves VO2 Max: This intense exercise helps train your body to utilize oxygen more efficiently during exercise.
  • Adds Variety: Hill repeats can add some fun and challenge to your weekly training routine.

When Should You Do Hill Workouts?

Hill running is not for complete beginners. Including it in your training as a new runner can lead to overtraining before you’ve built a fitness base. You should put in two to three months of solid base training first.

If you already have a good fitness base, adding hill workouts to your routine will depend on your goal. You don’t need to do it if you’re happy with your current performance, but it can help in certain cases.

Hill runs are essential to include in your training if you have a hilly race coming up. They’re also an excellent training tool for increasing speed and power, as they’re less stressful on the body than regular speedwork.

If losing weight is your primary running goal, then hill running will also help as it burns more calories than running on flat ground.

How Often Should You Run Hills?

While hill running is easier on your body than speedwork, it’s still possible to overdo it. If you’ve just built up your fitness base and are getting into hill runs for the first time, start by introducing just one hill workout a week.

You can increase to two hill runs per week after a few months. Advanced runners can begin with two hill runs a week. No matter your fitness level, there’s no need to do more than this, or you’ll be at risk of overtraining.

Different Types of Hill Runs That You Can Do

You can choose from many different hill runs, depending on your training goals and your ability. You may find that one type of hill workout works best for you, or you may want to mix it up to keep things interesting.

Hill Repeats

A hill repeat is simply running up a hill at a fast pace and then walking or jogging back down as a “recovery” period. You then repeat the cycle a certain number of times to complete your workout.

You want to go hard on the uphill run, with an almost all-out effort. You can walk back down during recovery, or jog back down if you feel you can. You can start by jogging during your down run and then walking as you become more fatigued.

Short Hill Repeats

Short hill repeats take place on shorter hills and usually steep hills—four percent to seven percent gradient. If you aren’t sure of the gradient, just look for a short but steep hill.

Your uphill sprint should last up to a minute at the most. These shorter hills are more intense, which means your heart rate will spike faster and you’ll be working in your anaerobic heart rate zone.

Short hill runs build muscle effectively and boost your overall running power. Pair these with strength training to maximize your power gains.

Long Hill Repeats

Long hill repeats take place on slopes that are flatter but extend further. The gradient of the hill won’t be as severe, but you should be able to run uphill for up to four minutes for one repeat.

As these are longer repeats, you won’t be pushing as intensely. However, you will need endurance to push through when your leg muscles start to hurt. They not only build your endurance and stamina, but they also build mental toughness.

Hill Sprints

Hill sprints work more on duration than they do on distance. You can do them on any hill, of any gradient, but longer hills work better.

You’ll set a timer for 10 to 30 seconds, depending on your fitness level. For that period, sprint up the hill as hard as you can. Then, recover for 60 to 90 seconds.

These high-intensity intervals help improve your cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, and activation. As they’re essentially a HIIT workout, you’ll also benefit from enhanced energy metabolism in the hours following your workout.

Hill Circuits

Hill circuits are tough because you have to maintain a high activity level, even during recovery periods. They’re like regular hill repeats at whatever time works for you, except instead of walking during recovery, you stick to a regular jog.

This keeps your heart rate up, which makes it an excellent aerobic workout. Hill circuits are generally done during the mid to later stages of a training program.

They’re physically demanding and help whip you into shape fast, but this peak performance level can only be maintained for around 6 to 8 weeks, so you don’t want to get there too soon before your race.

Hill Bounds

Hill bounding is all about boosting your overall power. Instead of running normally up the heel, you’ll focus on driving yourself forward and upward in a “bound” like a long jumper.

This kind of challenging hill workout really activates those leg muscles. Your calf muscles and quads, in particular, will feel it, but it’ll also work your glutes and hamstrings.

Downhill Running

While uphill running is the part of hill training that does the work, downhill running also has its benefits. It’s not as easy as you may think, but if you do it right, you can improve your knee stability and your running form.

Not only does it actively recruit the quads, it also gives you a good ab workout if you do it properly. You’ll need to tense your core to stabilize yourself as you run downhill, and control your pace.

Downhill Loops

For this type of workout, find a hill loop about a mile to a mile and a half long. This is excellent preparation for hilly races, so if you’ve got a race coming up, this is worth adding to your training plan.

You’ll run the loop two to four times in total, resting for a minute to two minutes between each rep. On the uphills, you’ll want to push at a moderate effort, and increase it to a hard effort on the downhill stretches.

As you improve, you can add a loop to your circuit each week or increase your intensity. Alternatively, you can rest for a shorter period between each loop.

Downhill Repeats

Downhill repeats are the opposite of regular hill repeats. Find a moderately steep hill to do these on. You’ll run up the hill at an easy to moderate pace. The down run should be done at a comfortably hard pace, making sure you can keep proper form as you go.

This kind of hill training session helps to prime the quads for the load that downhill running places on them.

How to Run Hill Repeats

Once you’ve built your fitness base, add one hill session to your weekly running routine. We recommend starting with an easy hill and building up your “hill fitness” before you start doing more intense hill training workouts.

Also, remember that hill repeats are the most basic of hill workouts. You may need to adjust your pace, time, and distance depending on what type of hill running workout you choose to do.

1. Choose Your Hill

We recommend beginning with a challenging hill grade but not so difficult that you lose proper running form.

You may need to experiment a bit to find the best incline to start with—unless you only have one or two hills nearby and you don’t have a treadmill, in which case, use what you have.

2. Remember To Warm Up

Hill running sessions can take a toll on the body, especially if you aren’t used to them. It’s essential that you warm up properly. Even though hill repeats generally reduce your risk of injury, not warming up correctly can make you prone to getting hurt or overtraining.

Just a quick 10-minute warm-up with some light cardio and dynamic stretches will be sufficient to get the blood flowing before your hill sessions.

3. Focus On Your Form

It’s important that you pay attention to your form throughout your hill runs. If you lose your form, your risk of injury increases, and your running efficiency decreases. You may want to include some running form drills in your warm-up.

4. Begin At Your 5K Running Pace

If you know your 5K race pace, that’s what you should be aiming for as you run up the hill. Those who don’t know their 5K pace can do a quick Galloway Magic Mile test—add 33 seconds to your mile time to get your 5K pace.

5. Jog or Walk Downhill

Once you reach the top of the hill, turn and walk downhill again. This is your “recovery period.” Your heart rate will begin to stabilize as you walk back down. If you wish, you can do a light jog rather than a walk.

6. Repeat For the Desired Reps

If you’re a strong runner, six repeats are a good number to start with. A beginner runner would be better off starting with two to three repeats. You can add an extra repeat every week if you feel up to it, but don’t go for more than 10 repeats.

Tips for Good Uphill Running Form

Proper running form is slightly different on hills than it is on flat ground. Here’s how to make sure your form stays good while hill running.

  • Lean slightly forward from the hips.
  • Keep your chest and head up.
  • Relax your shoulders and neck.
  • Look ahead of you, not at your feet.
  • Keep your core tight and your back straight.
  • Keep your arm swings short and sharp, like an uppercut.
  • Shorten your stride intentionally.

Recovery After Hill Workouts

Hill workouts are taxing. If you’re incorporating them into your training routine, you need to pay attention to your recovery to ensure you’re not at risk of overtraining. Here’s how to recover well.

Cool Down Properly

Cooling down is just as important as warming up. It allows for your heart rate to come back down safely and in a controlled manner. You can do a light jog, walk, or static stretching for 5 to 10 minutes to cool down effectively.

Refuel and Hydrate

Hill workouts are high-intensity, so they deplete the muscles of glycogen quite quickly. You’ll need to refuel soon after your workout to ensure your body gets what it needs to recover. Eat a healthy, nutritious meal within an hour of your hill session.

Also, stay hydrated. You can sip lightly on water throughout your hill workout session, but rehydrate effectively afterward. You may want to drink an electrolyte drink to ensure you’re replenishing what’s been lost.

Recovery Measures

You can use a foam roller to ease sore muscles, compression gear to improve circulation and aid recovery, and hot or cold therapy to assist your recovery.

Get Proper Rest

Healing happens during sleep. Make sure you’re getting 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep every night, as this plays a vital role in your running performance.

You may need to improve your sleep environment, like managing the temperature, lowering noise and light, and sticking to a regular bedtime.

Examples of Hill Workouts

Want to get started running hills? Here are some hill training workouts you can try. Do a combination of these regularly; you can expect stronger legs, more running power, and overall improved performance.

Hill Circuits

Run uphill for 90 seconds at your 5k race pace. Do a slower recovery jog on the way back down. Repeat this 4 to 8 times, depending on your fitness level. Alternatively, shorten this to 45-second intervals and increase your pace.

Hilly Run Loop Repeat

Find a hilly loop that’s about 1.5 miles long in total. If you don’t have access to hills, you can set this workout up on a treadmill, or you may be able to find a built-in workout program that mimics it.

Warm up properly and then set off on the loop. You’ll want to run the uphills at a moderate effort level, and increase that to a faster pace on the downhill sections. Rest for 2 minutes or so at the end of the loop, and repeat 3 to 4 times in total.

Downhill Repeat Workout

Find a hill with a gentle incline of two to three percent. Run up the hill at an easy pace and back down again at a more intense pace. Rest for a minute at the bottom and then repeat twice to four times.

Bounders

For this one, find a hill with a five to seven percent grade. Note that this is harder to do on an incline, as you must take quite large steps. Focus on bringing your knees up on each stride, and pushing off strongly with each foot, trying to maximize both the height and the length of your stride.

Bound for 50 to 80 meters in total, then walk back down and repeat. You don’t need to do this for many reps as it’s technically a drill, not a full workout. Two or three reps will be enough.

Quad Bangers

Choose a long, gentle hill of approximately half a mile in length. Run uphill at a moderate pace and rest for a minute at the top. Then, run downhill at a relatively hard pace, and rest another minute or two.

Repeat this up-and-down pattern for three to four reps in total. It’s an excellent all-round workout, giving you both uphill and downhill training and a muscular and cardiovascular workout.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.