Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Best Way For YOU to Run Hills

Although spring is approaching quickly, it still is winter in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  The mornings are dark, the wind is bitterly cold.  And while some town residents may be awaiting a warmer breeze before trading their comfortable bed or favorite TV show for an invigorating run, the members of local running clubs and other lone runners are pushing through the winter obstacles with dreams of PRs (personal records) in the spring, summer, and fall.

If you are a runner, you may know of some of the workouts they are completing.  Tempo runs, long runs, and fartleks are just a few.  But the one other workout synonymous with winter for runners is hills.  With the possibility of a track being covered with snow and ice, hill workouts on the road are a great way to develop a variety of characteristics vital to the success of a runner.  But how long? how fast? how many? how much recovery?  The questions are numerous.  And yet the answer is very individualized.

First, let's review just a few of the many different types of hill workouts…taking a close look at the purpose and use of each one:

1.)        Hill sprints (alactic = no significant lactate accumulation): 6-12x10-12 seconds at maximal effort on a steep hill with a walk-down recovery (2-3 minutes)
·         PURPOSE: Improve maximal speed and muscular strength by recruiting the highest possible percentage of fibers in the muscles
·         USE: FOR ALL RUNNERS throughout every period of the year….dosage can be adjusted depending upon time of the season

2.)        Hill exercises: 4-6x20-50m of high knees, butt kicks, skipping, and bounding on a moderate grade uphill with a walk-down recovery (1-2 minutes)
·         PURPOSE: Improve elastic reactivity (i.e., agility, quickness) and/or muscular strength
·         USE: For runners lacking strength (early to mid-season) or who are returning from injury [At FLASH Sports Physical Therapy, we utilize hill exercises in the later stages of rehabilitation as a form of running-specific strengthening....think of these hill exercises as squats for the runner!]

3.)        Longer hill repeats at MAXIMAL effort (significant lactate accumulation): 1-10x30 seconds-3 minutes at maximal effort on a fairly steep hill with a walk-down or very slow jog recovery (90 seconds-6 minutes, depending upon length of uphill section)
·         PURPOSE: Improve ability to recruit the greatest number of fibers in the muscles when they are full of lactate while generating the highest amount of power
·         USE: For runners who are preparing specifically for 800m-10k races, need to improve their finishing speed (kick), are preparing for a hilly race, or tend to peak early and need a replacement for early to mid-season high-intensity track work
·         ***Also advised for those returning from injury as one is eliminating the increased impact forces of faster, downhill running.

4.)        Longer hill repeats at SUBMAXIMAL effort (moderate lactate accumulation, sustained work above anaerobic threshold): 6-12x30 seconds-3 minutes at submaximal but strong effort on a fairly steep hill with moderately-paced running recovery (45 seconds-4 minutes, depending upon length of uphill section)
·         PURPOSE: Improve ability to run strongly when fatigued, boosting the anaerobic threshold and aerobic power with an element of strength
·         USE: For runners who are preparing for half-marathon-marathon+ races or are preparing for a hilly race that might involve a series of uphills preceded by some downhill sections
·         ***Not advised for those returning from injury as one is subjected to increased impact forces during the faster, downhill running.  Also, remember not to rush the 180-deg. turns at the top and bottom of the hill; taking these turns too quickly can place a great amount of stress on the knees and other areas and increase your likelihood of injury.  Therefore, although the total time of the workout can be a good measure for quantifying improvement, focusing on the individual times of the uphill and downhill sections may be a better option.  The ultimate emphasis still should be on the uphill portions, however.  Do not improve your downhill time splits at the expense of your uphill time splits; your uphill time splits should be the same to slightly faster from one session to the next while gradually bringing down the time of the downhill splits.

5.)        Uphill tempo runs (moderate lactate accumulation, continuous effort slightly above anaerobic threshold, can be performed on a treadmill for runners who do not live in mountainous areas): 15-45 minutes continuously at an effort slightly above anaerobic threshold on a moderate grade hill
·         PURPOSE: Improve ability to run strongly as one fatigues, boosting the anaerobic threshold and aerobic power with an element of strength
·         USE: For all runners in the early to mid-season (as a replacement for a flat tempo run) and throughout all periods for runners who are preparing for a hilly race; also can be a good replacement for longer hill repeats at submaximal effort with moderately-paced downhill recoveries as the overall stress to the cardiovascular system is similar (perfect for those runners returning from injury but who cannot tolerate the downhills yet!)

As you can see, hills are a gold mine for variety of workouts.  You also can manipulate stride length and frequency depending upon your desired effects and/or strengths and weaknesses.  This idea can be explored further in a future blog post.  So to answer the age-old question: Is there a best way to run hills?  The simple answer is yes while understanding that the best way for YOU today may not be the best way for YOU in 3 weeks or for one of your running partners.  Determine your goals and needs and find the best fit for you.  This same principle applies to the planning of any running workout.  Do not shortchange your running by falling into a rut of staleness; invigorate your workout routine so that YOU can run to the best of your God-given abilities!  


  1. Ryan,

    Thanks for the very useful hills workout breakdown, which served as a great reminder for how I should approach the hills this time of year. I am thinking that workouts 1, 2 and/or 3 make the most sense for me since I am concentrating on (indoor) track races 800 meters and shorter. (See you at the next appointment.)

  2. Delvin, thanks for your comment!

    I agree; hill workouts #1 and #2 lay the foundation for you as a middle-distance runner, and workout #3 is the perfect way for you to begin to prepare specifically for the demands of the 800m. Some world-class runners have run very good indoor 800m-races off winter training that consisted solely of workout #3 + fast tempo runs (20-40 min. in length) each week. Italian Giuseppe D'Urso (silver medal in the 800m in the 1993 World Championships) ran the best indoor seasonal time (1:45.47) in the world in this way.