Hill Workouts to Build Strength and Speed

4 hill workout variations to build strength, speed and good form

Want to improve your strength and speed as a runner? Want to work on your running form? Want reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries? Then head to the hills!

Hill repeat workouts offer a variety of benefits for all levels of runners. They’re a good way to increase strength, power and speed no matter if you’re training for a 5K or a marathon. They’re also a good way to reduce the chance of certain injuries by strengthening smaller stabilizing muscles that often get neglected in training. Hill repeats also accentuate good running form, as runners are less likely to overstride and more likely to run with good, upright posture and consistent arm swing.

The workouts come in several varieties, but the three most common types are longer hill repeats (3-5 minutes) at tempo pace, moderate-length hill intervals (45 to 90 seconds) to short, sharp uphill surges (50 meters at explosive efforts). No matter the type of workout, it’s best to run hill sessions on a moderate incline (roughly 10 to 15 degrees) with a consistent slope. Varying distance and recovery time are the key variables that will determine the ultimate effect of the workout.

For example, in a short hill interval workout of 8 x 45-second repeats, recovery time might slowly be decreased from a walk to a slow jog. This teaches the body to deliver oxygen more efficiently to fatigued muscles. Typically longer distance hill workouts (for example, 6 x 4 minutes with a downhill recovery jog) are done earlier in the season and shorter faster hill repeats are done later in the season or closer to a goal race.

If you dread running hills, you just need to change your mindset. See the hill as a friend, not a foe, rising up from the ground to boost you. Imagine strings attached to your hands and to a point at the top of the hill. As you pump your arms and thrust your elbows behind you, imagine the strings providing you leverage to pull yourself up more easily. And remember, running up hills is easier in many ways than running fast workouts on a track.

If you’re a flatlander and live in an area without much variation in the topography, you can mimic a lot of hill workouts on stairs or treadmills. Some runners have been known to use highway exit ramps or parking garage ramps. (We won’t openly condone that, but be careful if you do!) Always use precaution by running during off-peak hours in well-lit areas and wearing reflective gear.

There are dozens of links to traditional hill running workouts available online. Here are four hill workout variations to spice up your training routine.

1. Hill Drills

The late great running coach Arthur Lydiard incorporated short hill bounding (focus on the horizontal) and leaping (focus on the vertical) circuits into his athletes’ workout repertoires. These are deliberately done slowly and focus on body mechanics: slapping the feet to the buttocks, driving the knees, toeing-off, and driving the elbows back. When done correctly, these repetitions will leave you sore. Like lifting weights where the focus is on slowly releasing the weight despite gravity’s pull (the eccentric contraction), the hills are the gravity in the case of the runner slowly leaping and bounding.

2. Chalk

Turn an ordinary set of hills into a visually measurable challenge by carrying a piece of chalk with you. Let’s imagine you are doing 6 x 90 seconds on a moderately steep hill. After each 90-second repeat, mark where you reach on the hill to try to outstep or meet each previous repetition. (If you don’t have chalk, you can mark your spot with a rock or a twig.)

3. Puzzles

Make it complicated to keep your brain busy concentrating on the workout and not the pain you are feeling. Try running a descending ladder of uphill repeats 4 x 90 seconds, 4 x 60 seconds and 4 x 45 seconds where each set gets progressively faster.  For example, you might average a 7-minute/mile pace on the 90-second hills, 6:30 on the 60-second hills and 6:00 on the 45-second hills. You could also spice it up by doing the same workout but in a different order: 4 x 45 seconds at your faster pace, 4x 60 seconds at your medium pace and 4 x 90 seconds at your slower pace) where the descent is the recovery for each one.

4. Relay Hills

Suffering with friends always feels less painful. Grab two to three other runners eager for a hill workout that’ll kick their tail. Two runners stage themselves at the bottom of the hill and the other one or two at the top. The first runner at the bottom races to the top to tag another runner who descends the hill quickly to tag the remaining runner at the bottom. Do this until you’ve decided you’ve had enough or more than one of you can’t make the prescribed interval—whatever goal you want to set. (Perhaps the first to not make the established window of time to complete each hill, has to buy the group a round of beers.)

Downhill running is an often overlooked skill. Because downhill strides work on eccentric contraction, they recruit fewer fibers, which therefore increases the force on those fibers recruited. This helps increase the adaptability of our quads to future stress and soreness. Consider doing this on a dirt or grassy hill to decrease the impact of the downhill strides.

READ MORE: Tempo Run + Hill Repeats Combo Workout

Amanda McCracken
Amanda McCracken is a licensed massage therapist with more than 10 years of working on professional and recreational athletes. She is also an accomplished writer, runner and running guide for the blind. Read more of her work art www.amandajmccracken.com and follow her on Twitter at @writermccracken.