This is the first installment of a two-part series on hill training. Most runners include hill workouts in their schedules, and hill sessions can represent one of the most-productive forms of training for endurance athletes. There’s only one problem: Many runners don’t know how to construct hill workouts properly. Poorly planned hill sessions produce sub-optimal gains in overall fitness.
A collection of great hill workouts is like a key chapter in your overall training book, the volume which ends on the last page with a nice PR. To put together that essential chapter, it’s important to ask seven key questions:
(1) For hill training, what is the optimal hill inclination?
(2) How many hill reps should be performed per workout?
(3) How fast should you run on your uphills?
(4) How should you run the downhills?
(5) How much recovery is needed between uphill surges?
(6) Are hill drills important?
(7) Should you strengthen yourself in any systematic way before embarking on a series of hill workouts?
Here are detailed answers to each of the seven questions:
(1) What is the optimal hill inclination?
At a given running speed, more work must be done per step on a steep hill, compared to a gently inclined knoll (because the body must be lifted a greater vertical distance per ground contact on the more-severe monticle). That means that precipitous hills should produce higher heart rates, greater oxygen-consumption taxes, and loftier blood-lactate levels.
There’s a catch, however, and it resides within that introductory phrase – “At a given running speed.” The truth is that running speed is seldom constant as hill inclination changes; many runners move very quickly on mild hills (~ 2 to 3 percent) and slow down appreciably when assaulting a more-challenging upslope (~ 8 to 10 percent).
For this reason, it’s a great idea to use a mix of different hills (either in separate workouts or within individual sessions). On mild hills, it’s possible to run at close to 5- or 10-K race speeds, while performing the additional work of lifting the body vertically. This enhances strength while continuing to “teach” the nervous system to operate at high intensities. Steep hills slow down velocity and yet challenge the neuromuscular system to produce more work per step (augmenting raw leg strength greatly). The resulting combination of speed plus strength (which comes from training on both tame and rugged hills) will make you a much-more powerful runner.
(2) How many hill reps should be completed per workout?
This question is important: Too few reps can produce a mediocre day of training, instead of a great one, while too many climbs can increase the risk of injury and staleness. The 5-percent rule provides a good start. If you are running 30 miles per week, your initial max amount of hill climbing per workout (using the 5-percent rule) is (.05 X 30) = 1.5 miles. On a 400-meter hill, this would amount to six 400-meter climbs, of course.
While this might seem overly conservative, it minimizes the chance of malady, especially since you will be running back down the hill for recovery (please see question # 4). As long as everything is going well, you can gradually advance the amount of uphill running you complete per session as you progress through the hill-training phase of your overall program.
For a general approach to the problem of how to progress with workout duration and training volume over time, please read our article on the dubious value of the 10-percent rule here.
(3) How fast should you run on the uphills?
Two strategies are reasonable. First, you can simply run your hills with race effort. If you have a hilly 10K coming up, for example, you could hit your hills with the kind of intensity you want to maintain in that 10-K competition. Your exertion will be very difficult, yet controlled – and specific to the demands of your racing. This mode of conducting a hill session can be very confidence-building and will provide great specific preparation for a race. Also, the intensity is certainly high enough to move oxygen-consumption tariffs and blood-lactate levels into fitness-advancing territories.
But, especially on shorter hills (gentle or steep), it can be quite productive for you to employ max effort, getting to the top just as quickly as you possibly can. While this can increase the risk of injury, especially of the hamstring nature, it maximizes O2 employment and blood lactate and can have a dramatic impact on your power (by enhancing force production by your leg muscles and the rate at which that augmented force is applied to the ground). A reasonable strategy is to mix some max climbs and race-specific climbs together within a single workout to produce a beautiful “recipe” for running-capacity advancement.
(4) How should you run the downhills?
Like a basketball. On your downhills, you should run lightly, so that you can recover from your just-completed uphill assaults, and it’s very important to learn how to run downhill correctly (fast and economically), so that you will fare well during hilly competitions. From a form standpoint, the proper thing to do is to lean forward slightly as you run downhill, as scary as that might be. Land on your midfeet, not your heels, and bounce from foot to foot like an elastic ball, letting gravity take care of most of the work.
Avoid the temptations to lean back and to land on your heels, which would produce a braking effect and tarnish gravity’s gift to you. The key is to relax and bounce, bounce, bounce down the hill, like a basketball. Each ground contact will be minimal, just long enough to control body position. Practice this on gentle hills before you take the strategy to your local version of Mount Everest or K2, of course. Eventually, you will be able to run extremely quickly on downhills – with very little oxygen cost (since gravity is doing so much of the work).
If you are doing hill reps, you should begin your next uphill run as soon as you have reached the bottom of the hill, if possible. If you do need a few seconds of additional recovery before you initiate your next climb, simply jog around at the bottom of the hill; don’t stand in place with your hands on your knees. If you keep ascending and descending without significant break, your oxygen-consumption wharfage and blood-lactate appearances will be maximized, which are very good things.
Bear in mind that downhill running can be quite damaging to the quads if you have never done it before. This is one reason for the 5-percent rule (question # 2). If you are worried about your quad health, it is OK to walk back down a few of your hills, and even walk back down a few of your hills backwards, for a few of your workouts. But, a much-better strategy would be to strengthen your quads and whole legs thoroughly before embarking on your hill phase of training (question # 7).
(5) How much recovery is needed between uphill surges?
See question # 4. In general, the amount of time it takes to let gravity bounce you back down the hill is the optimal recovery time. However, if you are employing a really long hill, perhaps a mile in length, implying a mountain, the jog back down will take too long, and it is important to have someone available to drive you back to the bottom. This may seem a little strange, but it is the way to get the most benefit from sessions carried out on very prolonged climbs.
(6) Should you perform drills on hills?
Although a hill is little more than a large lump of earth, it is actually an extremely valuable training tool. Doing nothing but running on your favorite knob means that you will miss an opportunity to complete the hill drills which have a unique impact on your running capacity.
Such drills include hill bounding (running up the acclivity with extra-long steps, while maintaining excellent speed), hill accelerations (maintaining a step rate of > 200 as you climb while reducing step length), one-leg sprint hopping (moving up the hill as fast as possible by hopping on one foot only – this actually advances the oxygen-consumption tariff incurred by the hopping leg, compared with sprinting up the hill on both legs, and thus promotes a higher oxidative capacity in the leg muscles), reverse hill climbing (running up the hill backwards, a great strengthener for the quads), and downhill heel jogging (ambling down the hill on the heels with the ankles dorsi-flexed – a great strengthener for the shins, but progress carefully).
About 10 to 12 minutes of drills, carried out during the first half of a hill workout, can have a profound effect on strength, endurance, speed, and overall running ability.
(7) Should you strengthen yourself before embarking on a series of hill workouts?
This is critically important: Pre-hill-training strengthening will reduce the risk of ham blow-outs, protect the quads and knees during downhill running, and foster higher-quality hill sessions.
The right progression is X weeks of general strengthening (using circuits which work the whole body), Y weeks of running-specific strengthening (with movements which mimic the mechanics of running), and then Z weeks of hill work. See what comes after hill training in our upcoming series on How to Get Faster. Understand how long X, Y, and Z should be in our forthcoming epic on training periodization..