Hill Training for Runners

One topic I’ve struggled a bit with as a coach and in designing my own training has been how to integrate hill training into the program. I’ve ranged from one extreme (structured hill repeats with goal times and the distance and repetitions progressing through the season, in preparation for the Akron Marathon) to the other (nothing structured but just incorporating hills into long runs to get ready for the Towpath Marathon).

We all know the potential benefits of running hills regularly:

  • Improves strength in your glutes and hamstrings
  • Provides low impact speed work
  • Builds mental toughness and can prepare you for hills in a race
  • Helps provide gains in your running economy
  • Certain workouts can improve your VO2max

But how do we best realize these gains and make the most of the time (and energy) we invest in hill workouts?

A recently published study from the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand suggests that there really isn’t an optimal way in which to train with hills, just doing hills helps. Specifically, the study tested 20 subjects with a variety of hill interval approaches, and found no consistent “optimal” training approach while finding a (presumably) statistically significant mean improvement.

In light of this, it really doesn’t make sense to sweat how you integrate hill work into your program – but it’s something you should do on a regular basis. In a minimalist line of thinking, it’s best to keep such workouts less structured. Hills are infinitely variable in grade and length, as will be your energy or fatigue levels in doing them (and weather conditions, etc.), so tracking splits doesn’t really add a lot except stress.

Here are three ways you can easily build hill work into your plan:

Add Hills to “General” Workouts

Medium (60-90 minutes) or long (90+ minutes) runs should regularly incorporate hills if they are available, even if your goal race isn’t that hilly. Add hill sprints involving 4-6 repeats of 10-15 seconds up the steepest available hill near the end of short or medium runs, just like you should do with strides. These aren’t “hard workouts” so won’t take away from speed sessions, but just provide some added “bang for the buck” to your aerobic-focused training runs.

Incorporate Dedicated Hill Workouts

Dedicated hill work is appropriate for the strength-building phase of your training – the transition from base-building to race-specific periods. These workouts can be more structured but should be based on the hills you have available to use:

  • If you have short, steep hills, run short intervals in higher numbers (such as 6-8 reps of 200-400m)
  • If you have longer, shallower hills, consider adding longer hill repeats in a more limited quantity (such as 2-4 reps of 600-800m)
  • If you have a lot of rolling hills, take a fartlek approach on a medium-long run where you surge up the hills and relax/cruise on the downhills and flats.

The point is to do something more than short hill sprints but less than a typical VO2max workout, as you’ll be reaching VO2max intensities in a much shorter time period (and the point isn’t primarily VO2max gains anyway).

Perform Race-Specific Hill Training

Hills play a major role in many marathons, including Boston, San Francisco, Akron, St. George, among others. Therefore, it makes sense to match your practice on the hills to what you will experience. You can do this best by simulating the race course as closely as possible on long runs. If you are training for Boston, have some of your long runs involve starting with a lot of downhill stretches and then hitting uphills well into the run. For St. George, find some way to get used to running downhill for a long period of time. Even better if you can run sections of the actual course, even if only once.

Such training runs can include both “easy” long runs and, even more importantly, long runs incorporating marathon-pace work. The goal in the marathon pace workouts should be to learn to control your effort, not your pace (and possibly learn what pace is going to result at that equivalent effort).

The point is, as with so many other things in running, don’t let the need for perfection get in the way of progress. Far better to get some kind of hill training done, even if it isn’t “exactly” the right kind for your training. 80% or more of the value is in just hitting the hills on a regular basis.

We’re planning a few future posts on some more specific hill-training ideas, however, like making more out of your hill workouts and preparing for downhill races.