Running Hills: Are they important?

In a simple word: Yes.

Hills are not fun for anyone. Even the most elite runners probably dread a weekly hill workout. But they are so important for training in general. I know I mentioned yesterday I would talk about intervals and I will, but I think hills precede the intervals in training. I will talk about intervals tomorrow…I promise!

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Yesterday I mentioned the importance of strength training. Hills are a form of that strength training and also mental training. There are two different types of hill workouts.

Long Hill Intervals: When you run a hill workout, you are actually building muscles in your quads on the uphill, and lengthening hamstrings on the downhill. Repeats of hills are really great in training these muscles.

When running repeats, you want to try to run faster up the hill, then slowly stretch out on the downhill. There is no need to sprint downhill, as you will automatically pick up your pace.

Runners who have problems with hips and hamstrings should walk down the hills to try to alleviate some of the poundings on the way down.

It is important to remember good form on these hill repeats as well. You want to practice taking deep breaths through your nose, use your arms (I always tell the kids to use their back pockets), and lift your knees, even at the very top when you are dying.

I also try to do a short surge on top of the hill–which is the hardest part. This is mental toughness at it’s finest. You already are picking up your pace (or even keeping a steady race pace) up the hill, so deciding to make that even faster on top for a few strides is mentally draining. However, it works.

I would try to find a hill anywhere from 400-800 meters long for hill repeats. We have a great hill that is about 800 meters up. It starts very gradually and then gets steeper and steeper. We call it “Arrowhead” because that is the school it is near.

This workout is daunting to some of my high school kids, but after they feel amazing that they have accomplished such a feat. We will never race such a hill, but the physical gains they make, and the mental confidence from attacking such a workout is even more rewarding. I can always say that the race is easier than Arrowhead, and the kids agree.

It's A Hill. Get Over It.  Depending on the size of your hill, vary your reps. I usually start with 2-3, and I work my way up to 5. You do not need to kill yourself, but you do want your legs to feel like they have put everything into the workout. I would add warm-up and cool-down and stretch really well on these days as well.

I once heard some advice from a collegiate coach at a conference regarding repeats. His advice was to always change one thing when you do repeats–do not repeat the same workout. You can change the number of repeats, change length, change speed, etc. But don’t feel like you have to change numerous things. One thing is all you need to get better.

Short Hill Intervals-There are a ton of workouts to add short hill intervals to. You can complete a run and then add on a short hill repeat workout, or you can just make a short hill repeat your workout.

According to an article in Runners World, by Brad Hudson, hill sprints should be part of any runners regular training. I am not sure the “blogging” rules, but I want to include his smart, scientific explanation of what sprints do for runners.

  Hill sprints are an example of what I call “muscle training” — practices whose primary purpose is to stimulate neuromuscular adaptations that enhance running performance. They call for the nervous system to activate very large numbers of motor units, to fire these motor units quickly, to contract the muscles with great force, and to resist fatigue at maximal and near-maximal levels. They test the limits of the neuromuscular system’s capacity to generate and sustain running-specific speed and power, and thereby push back these limits. By engaging in regular, progressive muscle training, you will improve your brain-muscle communications in ways that increase your power efficiency, running economy and fatigue resistance. (Read more including workouts at Runners World

I usually do these on interval days with my team. We might do repeat 400’s, and at the end do a few short hill sprints. I find a hill that is 50-100 meters long and we race up the hill–so it is a dead out sprint up the hill. This makes your quads burn after a few of them.

If we have a course that involves several downhills, I might also have kids do a steady pace up the hill and then sprint down the hill (only on these short interval days), just to figure out footing and practice This really makes your hamstrings explode, so be sure to stretch them extra after trying this.

Another great hill workout is to find a 100-meter hill, time yourself going up and try to beat your time each time you go up. Remember that short hill workouts should be FAST. 

These short repeats are also mentally grueling because of the speed. They really allow your body to build some lactic acid into your muscles and you really have to train your brain to fight through that.

Here are a few more workouts that might be helpful at

Hill Run– The other way to incorporate hills into your workout is to find a hill place and do a steady state run up and down the hills. I imagine this run could start at three miles and work up to more.

For the people I coach, I alternate these workouts at the beginning of the week. Mondays are hill days. It could be intervals or it could be the hill run (short intervals are usually on Wednesdays after another workout).

The hill run consists of going up Arrowhead and turning onto another hilly road, that just goes up and down for a few miles. Then, they turn around and come back.

We have another route along the main road, then turning onto a side street, running to the top, coming down to the main road, going to the next block, turning onto the side street, running to the top, and coming back down. This repeats for seven hills. Sometimes I might even have them do the entire thing twice to get more miles.

These hill runs are important as well because they work on endurance and, again, strengthen your muscles. The long runs help with slow twitch muscle fibers and strengthen them to improve endurance. The other workouts are working more on the fast twitch muscle fibers–thus, this long run is important as well.

You do not have to worry about running this run fast. This should be a steady run at a comfortable pace. Bring your friends and chat or listen to country songs. You will not get a benefit from running faster on this run.

Incorporate all of these hill workouts for maximum results. Each of these hill workouts helps build strength and give you strong benefits. The long intervals really work on both fast and slow twitch fibers. Your body has to figure out how to use each in the same workout. The short intervals target fast twitch muscles and fibers and then the long run goes back to the slow twitch muscles.

In addition, you are improving and strengthening other muscles as well. Improved balance, ankle flexibility, aerobic and anaerobic systems are all used when training hills. According to author and coach, Pete Magill, hill training is the best-kept secret.

Image result for hill running shirts

A few gentle reminders: Never do more than you can handle. You do not want to pull something; listen to your body and how it is feeling. You should feel tired and your legs might be jello, but nothing should be painful.

Also, only do one major hill workout a week. You might add short hill strides to a workout, but do not designate more than one day as hills your primary focus.

Start small and work your way up. Do not jump into a 10-mile hill run or 5 repeats of mile-long hills. Really pace yourself to get yourself in “hill” shape.

Please let me know if you have any great hill workouts or need any help designing workouts. I would love to help!


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