Training Tips: Hill Workouts

Uphills can be daunting

Hills can be to runners what broccoli is to little kids: tough to swallow, but really good for you. I happen to love both hills and broccoli, so it seemed only natural to bring you a post about all the different ways to run hills. Try them! You might like them! Whether you’re training for a hilly race or just want to get stronger, there’s a hill workout for everyone.

First, a few very general recommendations for hill training:

  • If you’ve never “done hills” before, start by doing an easy run on a hilly route once or twice a week.
  • When you start doing any sort of hill exercise, start very small with just one or two reps.
  • Concentrate on effort, not on hitting a specific pace.
  • One or two hill sessions a week is enough.

A word about gradient, or the steepness of the hill. Running books and training plans tend to give you numbers: up to 10% gradient for steep hill sprints, 4-6% for most other kinds of hill training. Don’t stress if 3.79% is the steepest gradient you can find, or if you can’t be arsed to do math and figure it out.

The exact number isn’t important, and you can get by just fine classifying your hills as simply “steep” or “not so steep”. If you want to strengthen your legs, a short steep hill is best. If you want to work on strength endurance, you’ll want more gradual, longer hills.

The Salty Running Hill Workout List

Plain old hilly runs: If you’re new to hill training, a great way to strengthen your legs and prepare them for more intense hill work is to do a regular easy run over a hilly course once or twice a week. It’ll make you stronger, and you’ll barely even notice you worked for it.

Steep hill sprints: Run as hard as you can for 8-10 seconds up a short, steep hill. Coach Brad Hudson recommends these in his book Run Faster as a way to build strength and “injury-proof” your legs. Hudson warns that these are very taxing on muscles and connective tissue; he recommends starting with just one 8-second sprint on a 6% gradient and slowly building up to 10 x 8-seconds, then 10 x 10-seconds, then 10 x 12-seconds on a 10% gradient.

Many people swear by these. My personal experience trying hill sprints was not good: I pulled a hamstring on my very first hill sprint ever. So, while acknowledging that everyone is different, my advice is to proceed with caution.

Since we’re talking about me (we were, right?) I do something similar but slightly less intense: repetitions of about 30 seconds hard up a moderately steep hill, then walk or jog down. I run hard, but not at an all-out sprint. I think of these as a variation on strides and throw five or six of them into regular aerobic run once per week. As for “why 30 seconds?” well, that’s how long it takes me to run hard up the hill I do them on. Not very scientific, I’m afraid, but it works for me.

Uphill intervals: Instead of intervals on a track, run hard up a hill for the equivalent amount of time at the same effort level. Jog or walk down the hill to recover. (However, consider doing fewer repetitions on a hill than you would on the track, to avoid overdoing it. So if your scheduled workout is 12 x 400m in 90 seconds each and you want to do it uphill, do five or six reps instead of 12.)

If you’re training for a mountainous race, longer hill climbs of anywhere from 10 minutes on up, generally at a moderate effort, are key. You may have to hit the treadmill for those if you don’t live in a place with long hills – but don’t forget to practice downhill running too!

Why do this? Running uphill has obvious benefits if you’re training for a hilly race. Training specificity, yay! But it’s also great for road and track runners because uphill running recruits more fast-twitch muscle fibers. Recruiting and training more muscle fibers is key to strength endurance, or the ability to use your maximum strength over a certain time period. More strength endurance means running harder for longer.

Hill intervals can also be a good transition to the interval phase of a training plan. Make sure you plan adequate recovery after hill interval sessions; even if I’m not sore afterwards it always takes me two or three days to feel like my legs have recovered.

Lydiard-style steep hill running/hill bounding/hill springing and circuits: These uphill exercises used by Arthur Lydiard are great for power and flexibility. If you’ve never done them before, start with the steep hill running, which just means running 200-400m uphill with exaggerated knee lift, good push-off and hip extension. Hill bounding and springing are more advanced, plyometric versions of the same exercise, done on shorter hills. The Lydiard Foundation has a helpful video showing how all three exercises are done. If you don’t have access to a hill, you can do these on stairs instead.

Lydiard’s athletes did these exercises as part of hill circuits, which are also included in the Lydiard-based Running Wizard training plans: Do 200-400m of steep uphill running, jog at the top to recover, stride down, do two or three 75-100m easy strides and then repeat. Again, start with very few repeats, or even just one, and build up every week. The circuits are done once or twice per week for three to four weeks to strengthen your legs before you start the interval-training phase of the training plan.

gradual downhills are better than steep ones

Downhill running: Downhill running strengthens your legs, especially your quads, and is great for practicing higher turnover. Don’t bomb down the hill as hard as you can, though. It’s fun, but not good the next day(s). Rather, look for a gradual downhill, avoid over-striding, and follow Coach Jack Daniels’ recommendation in Daniels Running Formula to “feel like you are rolling down the hill rather than bounding.”

Variations: There are infinite variations on hill workouts. In The Science of Running, Steve Magness suggests alternating intervals on hills and flat (for example doing 400m uphill, recover, 400m flat, recover, 400m uphill and so on) on the theory that you recruit the fast-twitch fibers on the uphill portion, then train them on the flat.

You can integrate hill sprints or intervals into circuit training, alternating hills with strength-training exercises. Sometimes I do a “hill fartlek” where I do Lydiard-style steep hill running up the hills on my regular route, then stride down.

Tell us about your favorite hill workouts! Anything you’d add to the list?

I'm a 41-year-old living in Berlin, Germany. I run because I can't not run. I write about training, mental training, momming, and the odd rant.

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6 comments

  1. the hardest part of hill training for me is finding the right hills for the right workout. I have a good one for short hill sprints (did them today, in fact) but haven’t found a good one for Lydiard-style ups with a flat at the top. The quest continues.

    1. Yeah, it’s not easy to meet the exact lydiard specifications for those circuits. I just do the best I can with the hills I have.

  2. I think my favorite way to work on hills is a plain old hilly run! I think incorporating hills on a regular basis even on easy or long runs does wonders.

    I also like hill workouts that incorporate flat speedwork after, even just a few strides. Learning to do interval pace, or just general faster running on tired legs from hills.

    1. Agree on the hilly runs! It’s pretty flat where I live, but I try to get out on hilly trails at least once a week. Those are my favorite runs.