After you’ve been running for awhile, it’s natural to have a desire to get faster. The problem is most runners dive right in to speed workouts and often end up injured. Instead, I want you to consider hill sprints.
Hill repeats are the first speed workout as a running coach that I have all of our runners do.
Yes, even when I lived in Miami and there wasn’t a hill in sight, I would find bridges to run or use the treadmill.
And if you can’t even find those, then checkout these amazing stair workouts for runners!
Hill sprints are adjustable to every single fitness level and more importantly will make you faster, while dropping your injury risk. Let’s talk about how all of this works and some specific workouts to get you going.
What are Hill Sprints?
Hill sprints or hill repeats are set intervals of running with maximum effort uphill, followed by a recovery period which usually involves walking or easy jogging back downhill.
Sprints specifically refer to an intensity level that puts you at a 8-10 on the running RPE scale and is impossible to hold for more than 30-60 seconds.
*Studies have been done on roughly a 10% incline for that top speed work.
Starting out you’ll only do 3-4 repeats and even at the top end no more than 10 repeats. Particularly if you are truly doing hill sprints, you are not gaining any massive benefit over 10 repeats, but you are increasing the chance of injury.
This is different than doing a run with rolling hills. That’s also something you 100% want to have in your training plan, but consider this a hard workout day.
In other words, this is another type of speed workout. It’s one that has been shown to work even quicker than strides, fartleks or tempo runs.
I’ve expounded on all the benefits and form tips for running uphill in this article. So today, we’re going to just talk sprints.
5 Benefits of Hill Sprints
One small study in 2013, showed an average 2% improvement for runners who spent 6 weeks adding hill intervals to their routine.
Meanwhile another small study in 2017, had runners commit to 12 weeks of hill training. The results were that hill sprints “can significantly improve VO2 max, Rhr (resting heart rate), speed endurance and race performance in club level middle and long distance athletes.”
For something that is short, quick and available to all levels of runners since it’s based on effort.
But how is it actually helping us to achieve those results?
Speed + Strength Training Combined
While running uphill hard, you are effectively getting a strength workout. Your legs have to work much harder than running on flat ground. You’re pushing in to the hill to create momentum, while also trying to quickly turn over your feet.
The glutes are firing in a massive way that is specific to your goal of running faster, not just being strong.
And we know that strong glutes make for better endurance and more speed. Look at the powerful legs of sprinters!
Practicing Good Running Form
One of the reasons that I LOVE hill repeats for those newer to speed work is it forces good running form. Often when trying to run fast, we overstride and create all kinds of pain in the knee, hips or IT Band.
When running uphill, you must pick your knees up and keep your steps short and quick.
It also forces you in to a forward lean thanks to gravity, which gets your foot landing directly under your body.
You have all the elements of good running form happening without you needing to overthink it.
Less Risk of Injury Than Other Speed Workouts
Because of the good form noted above, you are less likely to pull a hamstring or create another issue from trying to run faster than your current capabilities.
It’s also lower impact than immediately adding in plyometrics (though you absolutely should do that at some point in training).
Running uphill allows you to land quicker on the ground, creating less impact on your joints and tendons.
Getting Away from Pace Focus
One of the drawbacks to a lot of speed workouts is we get intimidated by the set paces or we decide that we aren’t fast enough.
Hill workouts are a great neutralizer for that! It’s really hard to compare your hill workout to anyone else because you don’t know how steep it was or how far they ran before doing it or well anything else.
It’s all about the effort.
And you will feel that effort, so you’ll have no doubt that you are doing the work.
Which then helps to start building your confidence about doing hard workouts. I’m not someone who loves track workouts. Actually that’s putting it mildly, I don’t like the track.
But after doing some hill sprints, I started to realize that I was more than capable of a lot of other speed workouts that I’d previously put off.
HIIT Training for Fat Loss
Hill sprints are a form of HIIT (high intensity interval training). Which makes them especially great for those runners with a goal of fat loss and for running through menopause.
I added this as the last benefit because it’s more of a bonus rather than the main reason we do them.
This hard effort shoots your HR up, then your body learns how to recover quickly. During that time, your body is also opening up your muscles to more efficiently utilize carbohydrates (something we struggle with as hormones change).
3 Hill Sprint Workouts
Now it’s time to get down to the details.
You’re committed, you’re ready, let’s have some fun.
Before any type of speed workout you need to start with a dynamic warm up and even better if you can go through in some running form drills.Literally the two things will take you 10 minutes and pay off in a better run.
Then you’ll want to run easy for at least a mile, but as noted above my preference is actually that you do a 3-4 mile easy run and finish with hills.
Where to do hill sprints?
Outside you’re usually looking for a fairly steep hill that gives you a chance to run for anywhere from 20 to 60 seconds depending on the workout. Since it’s hard to know the grade of the road specifically, unless you have my fancy Polar V2, this may require some testing to see what works best.
Anything longer than than is turning in to an uphill interval workout because you can’t sustain a sprint for a long duration. If you can, then it’s not a sprint.
On the treadmill, we usually have runners start out with 7-8% incline and see how that feels. If you’re really comfortable on the treadmill and can easily jump off on the guard rails or you’ve done quite a bit of hill work, you may want to go higher.
When to do hill sprints?
Ideally, you are going to do this workout at the end of an easy run.
Occasionally, you might do it in the middle. But the goal is to have no more than a mile or so of easy running left after you finish the sprints.
It’s important for your form not to breakdown because of fatigue. And if you’ve never done them before, you may not judge your remaining energy as well.
Short Hill Sprints Workout
This is a great starting point for anyone running hills. I recommend doing this workout for a few weeks, then you’ll start to add reps and then you’ll start to add time to the repeats.
It’s one of our favorites during the base building phase for working on that top end speed. Remember this is a suggestion, so if you are new to hill repeats start with a lower incline.
- 4 repeats
- 20 seconds running hard uphill
- aim for around a 10% grade
- walk back down, walk around for as long as it takes to catch your breath and let your HR drop
As you feel stronger, you might work up to 8 repeats at 20 seconds.
Then go back to 4 repeats at 30 seconds, and start to build again.
Remember that in EVERY training schedule, you should have recovery weeks that include no hills, no sprints, no speed work.
Hill Repeat Workout
Repeats are slightly different than a sprint. As noted a sprint is your all out effort and hard to maintain for any duration of time.
Repeats can be done at various intensity and duration based on the goal of the workout.
- 4 repetitions
- run uphill for 2 minutes at 10K effort (yes effort, not pace)
- aim for a 6% incline
- jog down and recover for up to 3 minutes
On a treadmill you are likely looking for an incline of 4-6%.
Overtime, you can build this workout up to 6-8 reps. Focus on trying to hit the same level of effort for each repeat. If you start out too hard, then you’ll notice that each rep gets slower and slower because you used up your energy in the first round.
Long Hill Workout
If you have a specific race coming up with a lot of incline or you’re working on some endurance goals, you may benefit from doing a long hill run.
In this case, we’re looking for a hill that’s miles long. You’ve probably noticed these while driving around or as a trail runner in Colorado it includes nearly every trail that starts in Boulder and goes UP.
- Do your warm up and a little easy running
- Start running uphill for 1-6 miles, it really depends on your conditioning and goals
- Aim for a 2-4% incline, depending on what you’re training for
- Know that you’ll be running back down that hill which will tax the quads, but allow you to fly
All right, now you have the scoop on hill sprints and why you need to add them to your routine. Especially if you’re an injury prone runner, who wants to increase your speed!
Below I’ll share one more bonus hill treadmill workout!
Looking for some additional speed work?
- How to do running strides correctly
- Keys to Running Downhill (Protecting your quads and knees)
- What are fartlek runs
- Understanding tempo runs
- Does VO2 Max matter?
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