Hill running is no easy walk in the park. It requires a mix of stamina, strength, technique, and sheer will-power. That’s why lots of runners have a love/hate relationship with hills.
If you tend to avoid the hills because they’re challenging and/or don’t know how to tackle them, then today’s article is perfect for you because I’m gonna show you how to master them once for you all.
But first things first, let’s dive into some of the reasons why you should love the hills instead of loathing them.
The Benefits of Hill Running
When you run uphill, you will tend to lift your knees in an exaggerated way, you will be driving your arms forcefully, and be doing your best to push off from your toes, strengthening almost every muscle in your body.
Not only that, since hill workouts are often very intense, they can also increase your VO2 max and endurance level as your cardiovascular systems works hard to keep pace with the increased energy needed to go uphill.
In other words, hills will make you a stronger, faster and a better runner.
Word of caution before you start
Please keep in mind that hill training is tough.
As a result, to steer clear of injury, head to the hills after building a solid base of endurance and strength. Hill training is intensity to the extreme.
That’s they should be done no more than one per week—especially if you are a beginner.
How to Conquer Hill Training
If you’re one of those runners who hate running hills, it may because you’re doing hill workouts the wrong way.
Apply the following hill training guidelines, and you may look forward to uphills and downhills during your runs.
1. Find a Good Hill
If this is your first time running hills, start with the basics.
First, find a runnable hill—one that’s not too long and not too steep. The ideal hill for beginners should be between 100 to 200 meters long. The incline has to be challenging, but not so testing that you won’t be able to keep good form throughout. Inclines of roughly three to five percent are the sweet spot.
No hills available? If you live in flatland like me, you can simulate hill training by working the incline on the treadmill between four and six percent.
2. The Warm-up & Cool-Down
Whenever you’re hill running—or doing any other form of training—make sure you warm up first and cool down afterward.
Hill work challenges both your muscles and joints, so you’d want to make sure to have performed a dynamic warm-up before attacking the hill.
Get about five to ten minutes of slow jogging before reaching the bottom of the hill. To get the most out of the warm-up, perform a set of dynamic exercises. Check my routine here.
Once you’re done hill training, your body will need time to bring itself back to the norm. That’s where right cool down comes into the picture. Check my favorite routine here.
3. Start Small – The Ideal Session
If you’re a complete hill running newbie, start with shorter hills that have a tiny incline. Just make sure to give your body enough time to get used to the feel of going up and down before attacking steeper and more challenging hills.
Here’s how to proceed on your very first hill workout.
Jog for 5 to 10 minutes on a flat surface to warm up. Once you feel warm, run up the hill at an easy and sustainable pace for 10 to 20 seconds, then walk back to the starting point.
Run up again the hill, then walk down. Repeat the sequence for 15 to 20 minutes—or for as long as you feel strong. Last up, cool down with a 10-minute easy jog.
4. Control Your Body
Running hills efficiently calls for good rhythm. If you let the hill take control over your pace, it will break you, and you’ll find it hard to pick it back up again.
Here’s what you need to do.
When you’re running uphill, don’t try to maintain an equal pace. Instead, shoot for an equal effort. This will save up your energy for the rest of the workout while putting in a good sweat.
In other words, let the hill slow you down, but keep an even effort throughout.
5. When to Start
If you’re serious about starting hill training the right way, then make sure to build the right base first. Do not attempt any hill training until you have done at least two to three months of base-building running.
As a guideline, train at least three to four days a week, averaging 14 to 16 miles per week. Once you’ve built your base, add one hill workout into your weekly plan.
6. The Exact Pace
Your training pace depends, entirely, on the type of hill workouts you’re performing.
But for the sake of argument, I’m assuming that you’re a beginner runner who wants to get a taste of the hill without committing too much.
If that’s your case, then perform your hill work at around 70 to 80 percent of maximum power. You shouldn’t push yourself too hard early on, but at least your pace has to be challenging. I recommend no more than 15 minutes the first session.
7. The Very First Few Steps
After the warm-up, begin at the bottom of a mildly inclined hill of roughly 100 to 150 meters long.
I’d recommend running up the hill at 5K effort pace. Ideally, you should be able to run up your chosen hill while keeping the same effort level that you were putting when running on flat surfaces. Of course, feel free to challenge yourself up the hill, but don’t let your form break down.
8. The Uphill Form
A common mistake many make when tackling a hill is bad form. Luckily, proper technique is not rocket science. It’s something you can learn with awareness and practice.
Here are a few tips to help point you in the right direction.
The proper alignment. Keep your hips, chest, and head perpendicular to an imaginary horizontal line. Your body should remain upright both up and down the hill. Lean in slightly from the hips, but do not stoop when going up the hill—that’s a common mistake many make on the uphill.
The head. Do not stare at your feet, nor look way up the top of the hill. Keep your chest and head up with your eyes gazing directly of you focusing on the ground roughly 10 to 20 feet in front of you. This is especially the case if you’re running up a steep and long hill.
The right posture. Engage your core muscles, keep your back straight and chest out, and hold your head up. This should open your airways, allowing for maximum oxygen delivery—Oh trust me, you going to need all the oxygen you can get.
The arms. Keep your arms bent at a 90-degree angle. They should be moving forward and backward, rotating at the shoulder, not side to side.
Arm swings. Swing your elbows backward from your shoulder to generate enough momentum to help power up the hill. Imagine you’re punching some in front of your with an uppercut. This might seem exaggerated, but it works.
Stride rate. As you go up, shorten your stride instead of extending it as if trying to power up the hill. The feet should be kept low to the ground the entire time. This can also help keep you in a more upright position.
9. The Downhill Technique
Once you clear the hill, you should be breathing heavily, and legs be slightly fatigued. Next, all you need to do is turn around run down to the starting point.
But the downhill is not something you should take for granted. In fact, run the downhill section too hard or with bad form, and you’ll find yourself in pain. Thanks to the continuous braking effect, the downhill section puts a lot of pressure on the feet and knees.
Here’s how to build proper downhill form.
Avoid overstriding. Let gravity carry you downward and use it to step up the pace. Take short and quick steps, increasing your stride rate.
The right landing. Focus on landing on your forefoot. Landing on the heels creates a braking effect, which jars the entire body and slows you down. Land as light as possible, preferably on the mid to forefoot. Do not pound the ground.
Also, do not fall down the hill out of control. This may hurt your quadriceps. Try to keep a stride turnover and effort that’s consistent with the rest of your workout.
The Five Hill Workouts Runners Should Do
In this post, I’ll be outlining 5 different types of hill workouts and briefly talk about the benefits that each type brings to the table.
Every hill runs workout serves a purpose, and the good news is that whatever sport you are doing—whether it’s basketball, biking, running, MMA, or just trying to shed some pounds and get into a better shape—there is a hill for you. You just need to discover it!
Without further ado, here are 5 basic types of hill workouts you need to try.
1. Short Hills
A short hill—by definition—is a relatively small hill of 50 to 200 feet. This type of hill should take you no more than 30 seconds to run up.
Aim for an inclination between 5 to 15 percent grade.
On the short hill sprint, the entire source of your energy is anaerobic, so the focus is on speed, power and maximum effort—at least a 9-10 on the rate of the perceived exertion scale.
In other words, to make the most of it, you need to power up the hill like a sprinter at full speed.
Also known as explosive hill sprints, the short hill workout taps into all three types of muscle fiber.
They also increase maximal stroke volume in the heart—boosting the amount of blood you heart can propel with each stroke—making your cardiovascular system more efficient.
This hill workout is ideal for runners looking to develop explosive strength that’s key to run short distances or finishing strong in middle distance running.
On the uphill section, focus on your running technique with a powerful push off and on using your arms to generate enough momentum. Plus, run tall, and avoid leaning forward.
Go full effort. They are sprints after all.
Start with six or eight up the steepest hill you can find, then build up over a few sessions to 10, then some more.
After each sprint, take at least 90-seconds to catch your breath so that you are fully recovered before you sprint up the hill again.
2. Long Hill Repeats
Unlike the short hills, long hill repeats are designed to do something else to your body and conditioning level.
On the long hill run workouts, you should focus on aerobic energy employment and care less about speed and power. Leave the speed for the short hill workout.
The power needed to run a long hill recruits intermediate fibers and slow-twitch fibers.
This type of hill workouts can help you improve running economy as well as improving your lactate turn point.
They build aerobic and muscular endurance—a must for long distance runners, or any other sport that requires high levels of endurance. That’s why these are key if you are training for longer distances like half marathons to full marathons.
Find a moderate hill that’s about half a mile in length, and at least 5 percent grade. It should take you up to three to five minutes with a challenging pace to reach the peak.
After a proper warm-up—a five minute of slow jogging followed by some lower-body dynamic movements— run up the hill at an effort equal to or a bit faster than your 10K race pace.
Aim for roughly a 7 on a scale of one to 10 on perceived exertion level.
The ideal hill climb can take at least three minutes, so it’s imperative that you start slow and pace yourself properly on the climb, finishing every repetition with just enough energy in the tank to go for one or two more repeats.
Run down the downhill sections at mildly-comfortable effort—about 70 percent of your max—to prevent injury and recover fully.
Repeat the cycle three to four times.
3. Long Hill Runs
This is a steady-state hill run.
These are the traditional type of hill runs that most runners opt for when looking to improve their hill running—and overall fitness—skills.
When it comes to distance, you should pick the length that feels right for you and is in line with your training goals and fitness level.
Just don’t kill yourself. The average long run hill distance can be anywhere from three miles to 10 miles.
This hill workout mainly taps into the slow twitch fibers—these fibers call for lower-intensity and a longer duration training loads to reach maximum endurance.
They also boost ankle flexibility, which helps you improve stride length and frequency.
Long hill runs can be approached in several different ways.
For starters, if you are a beginner, start off by adding a half-mile to a mile of steep uphill into your long runs.
As you get stronger, increase the total volume of uphill in your runs to two or three miles.
Or, if you have already a solid base, then find a long hill—preferably a trail road that ascends for at least five to ten miles—shooting for 45- to 90-minutes of continuous uphill running.
You can also do your long run on a route that incorporates plenty of rolling hills. It’s always your choice.
For more challenge, you can run hard the downhill section. Run down the hill at a faster pace than normal, using the flat sections for recovery.
4. Downhill Running
The downhill hill section is not just for recovery. When used right, it can help you improve your running on so many levels.
Downhill running conditions the legs against delayed onset muscle soreness by increasing quadriceps strength through eccentric contraction—this happens when a muscle simultaneously contracts and relaxes.
Plus, downhill running can also teach how to control your pace—using your core muscles—and it’s a great way to help improve your running form.
Therefore, at least, once a month, do a specific downhill running workout. If you don’t have the time for a particular workout, then simply reversing the long hill repeats will do the trick.
After a proper warm-up, ease into the downhill with a short and fast burst on a gentle slope with a stretch of a smooth surface at the base.
Open your stride slightly, lean forward and run down as fast as you can.
As a result, never fight gravity on the downhill.
In fact, when it comes to improving running times and warding off injury, gravity is your best ally.
Keep your pace under control. Brace your core tight, engage your lower body muscles and control the hill. And please whatever you do, DO NOT let the hill control.
As you improve your downhill running technique, build up the descent over time to as much as 200 to 400 meters of downhill.
5. Hill Bounding
If you are thinking about improving your strength in the most specific way to running, then think no further than hill bounding. It’s an awesome hill workout to improves running form and increases strength without hitting the weight room.
Hill bounding drills build leg strength, power and speed like no other hill workout. This will improve your power output in a running-specific way, helping you boost efficiency and improve top-end speed.
With hill bounding, you will be mainly strengthening the quadriceps and ankle—this will help boost up your push-off power—but other muscles, like the glutes, hamstrings and calves do get their share of strength training as well.
Please only add a hill bounding workout into your training program after you have built a solid base of cardio and muscular power. This is not for the beginner. Beginners you have been warned.
Find a moderate grade—5 to 7 percent— hill for this hill bounding workouts and do some of the following drills.
Hill bounding. Run up the hill with extra-long steps, while keeping top-speed. Aim to maximize the heights of each stride by bringing up your knees as high as you can and stretching the Achilles tendons completely as your feet hit the ground. Have also a strong ankle push-off.
Hill accelerations. Start running slowly as the bottom of the hill, then as soon as you reach the middle point, pick up the pace and run as fast as you can to the top while reducing step length.
One-leg hops. Move up the hill as fast as you can by hopping one foot. Walk down for recovery, then change sides.
How Much Hill Training
Starting out, schedule one hill session every 7 to 14 days. As you get fitter, add time to your repeats and an extra climb.
The number of reps depends on your fitness experience and training goals. If you’re staying within your fitness level, you’re good to go.
As you get fitter, expect to perform anywhere from eight to ten repeats, depending on your goals and level of fitness. Just whatever you do, whenever plan hill workouts, make sure to not do it more than once a week.
Mix up your hill workouts—some steep and short, and other longer ones with less challenging inclines.
Bonus – The Treadmill Hill Workout
Most treadmills have an incline option, with models going up to 15 percent grade, or even more. But in case your treadmill does not go all the way up to 15 degrees, you could always use a 10 percent incline. If you are looking for challenge, then speed it up a bit and adjust your speed accordingly.
Try this 20 minute hike treadmill workout. Do this workout two to three times a week to build endurance and strength indoor.
If you are a beginner, or really out of shape, start with a speed of 2.5 to 3 mph and stick with it. However, if you are advanced and know what you are doing here, then you can up the ante and go up to 5 mph.
Just keep in mind that you are the boss. You call the shots. So feel free to adjust the incline and speed so that you still receive a challenge tailored to your own fitness level and goals.
Beginners be careful. If this is your first time on the treadmill, then be careful and do not go all out on your first few training sessions. Instead, start with incline level you can walk on without much trouble, around 4 to 6 for the beginners, then gradually increase the incline and intensity with each workout as you get stronger and fitter.
Plus, please be extra careful if you have any problems with your hip flexors, whether it’s injury or tightness. Steep incline can cause pain, even injury, to those muscles.
Without further ado, here is the routine:
Start the routine with a proper warm-up. Walk or jog slowly for five minutes then start to gradually and slowly increase the incline by increments of 1% every minute (while keeping the same speed), so that by the end of the first five minutes you are at a 4 to 5 percent incline.
Increase your incline to 8 to 10 percent and keep the same speed. Shoot for a level of perceived exertion of 7, on a scale of 1 to 10.
Reduce your incline to 4 to 5 percent but keep the same speed. Recover and get ready for next round.
Increase your incline to 12 percent and keep it up for two minutes. For more challenge, you can increase the speed as well, but keep your RPE less than a 8, on a scale of 0 to 10.
Reduce your incline to 4 and recover.
This is the longest and hardest incline interval. Increase your incline to 15 then stick with it for at least four minutes. Keep good form at all time. Shoot for an RPE of 9. Push your hardest here.
Five-Minute Cool Down
Congratulations! You made it.
Now slowly and gradually reduce your incline to 2 percent and jog slowly for 5 minutes to cool down.
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Featured Image Credit – Ilanch Chacham through Flickr.