Best Hill Running Workouts
When you first start running, it’s hard. You breathe heavily and your brain screams at you to stop. But stick with it and soon, you can run along and chat with your training partners.
At this point, coaches know you should insert a new challenge, or your fitness improvement slows. That’s where hill training comes in. It’s a great next challenge after you’ve built a base of easy running. That’s why you see a Hill Plan in part of my sequence of plans to build a full training cycle.
Hill Running Benefits
With hill training you:
- Boost your VO2max
- Better handle lactic acid buildup
- Improve leg turnover
- Learn effort since effort is more important than pace or heart rate in hill workouts
- Develop more mental toughness
- Break up the boredom of just running easy all the time.
That my friends is a wide range of fitness improvements for the runner. Lots of bang for the buck.
Hill running is also diverse in how a runner or coach can insert training into training. Most coaches like myself use hill training in four key ways:
- Introduction to faster running for new runners (as mentioned before)
- As a training phase before beginning speed work (detailed here)
- As a specialty workout within a training plan to get ready for a hilly race (hilly plans here)
- As a way to get a big fitness boost using an effort-based workout
Best Types of Hill Workouts
Long Hill Repetitions
Long hills are performed on a gradual slope and last around two to three minutes. You run at a medium-hard effort (should feel like 10K effort). At the top, you turn around and jog slowly back down to the bottom of the hill before beginning again. Most runners find that four to eight repetitions are optimal for a long hill workout. Every now and then, pick up the pace on the downhills for a bit to find your best downhill technique. Don’t do too much of this faster downhill running but in small doses, downhill running helps you find your best technique.
NOTE: Hill workouts are effort-based NOT pace-based (video here). You’ll run slower up the hills but the main metric is that it should feel like a given race effort. In the long hills above, for example, the effort is 10K race effort. Not 10K pace. Focus on good form with powerful push off and strong arm swing. Jog down the hill slowly to recover. You can also practice your downhill running technique by running down the hill occasionally at 10K race pace. Keep your body under control and add these descents in gradually as you will probably be sore afterward.
Medium Hill Repeats
Medium hills are performed on a moderately steep slope and last 45 to 60 seconds. The effort is “hard” which is around 5K race effort for most runners. As with the long hills, once at the top, you simply turn around and jog down as your recovery before starting the next repeat. Eight to 12 repetitions works well for medium hills.
NOTE: Some runners aren’t used to effort-based training so here is how a hill workout should feel. Let’s use the medium hill repeats as an example. This workout is to feel like 5K effort so the first few repeats should feel like the first mile of a 5K – fast but controlled and you can recover your breath on the recovery jog down the hill. The middle few repeats should feel like the middle mile of a 5K – getting hard, breathing labored, legs feeling heavy and harder to recover on the downhill. The last few repeats should feel like the last mile of a 5K – require lots of mental focus to keep pushing and to keep your form from breaking down. You breath very heavily and may need a few seconds to catch your breath before the jog down the hill.
Steep Hill Repeats
As the name suggests, steep hills are performed on a steep hill. However, they only last 10 to 15 seconds so they are over fast. Because they are short and steep, the effort is very hard (around mile race effort for most runners). The idea behind these very short, steep hill repeats is that you rarely recruit a large proportion of your muscular power during running (even fast running) so these efforts help train this full recruitment of muscle fibers which may help in performance and injury prevention.
My favorite type of hill workout is the hill circuit. This workout was popularized by my mentor, Arthur Lydiard, so I naturally gravitate to it. In the hill circuit, you not only run up the hill as in the other workouts, but you include other elements throughout the circuit. In Lydiard’s famous hill circuit, his runners would run strongly up the moderately sloped hill then recover at the top. Once recovered, they would do several short sprints/strides to build leg speed before running strongly down the hill. Once at the bottom, they would recover again before doing more strides. If you have a hill that has flat running at the top and bottom, I recommend you include Lydiard’s hill circuit in your plan.
Long Hill Climbs
A frequent workout athletes did in the first Olympic training team I coached was the long hill climb. At our camp, we had a 20K (12.4 mile) hill that the athletes ran strongly up once per week. It wasn’t a race, but it was a very strong effort that lasted over an hour. Most coaches have found that any long hill climb that lasts between 30 minutes to an hour works great. Of course, you have to have access to such a hill so this type of workout is usually only available to runners living in mountainous areas.
Of course, the easiest type of hill training for all runners who live in areas with hills is to simply run over hill courses from time to time. When running over a hilly route, attack the uphills and at times, also push the downhills faster. Over time, this frequent exposure to uphill and downhill running will greatly improve your fitness.
Proper Hill Running Form
There is no one uphill (or downhill) running form for all runners. But, you need to find the form that works best for you. So, I encourage you to play around with your uphill and downhill running technique during these workouts. Lean more forward then more backward on some. Think about lifting your knees at times then on other repeats, focus on more back kick. Do the same with your arms (higher on some and lower on others). Play around. Experiment. See what works for you.
Uphill Running Form
There are four key points to improve your uphill running form:
On up hills, lean INTO the hill. You still want to run tall but your body should lean against the slope of the hill as you charge up the hill. Also, make sure to look up. The tendency is to look down at the ground but keep your eyes and head up. Look at the top of the hill and you’ll find you stay in your run tall posture and lean into the hill correctly.
The legs do what the arms do. Pump your arms more vigorously up hills and you’ll maintain a better pace.
Faster and shorter strides are typically better than long strides on an uphill.
Knees or feet
Experiment with lift knees to power you up a hill or alternatively, some runners find that if they push hard with their feet against the ground, that works better.
For full details on uphill running form, here is my full video.
Downhill Running Form
When it comes to downhill running form, things change a bit from uphill running form.
Instead of leaning INTO the hill like in uphill running form, on downhills, you lean WITH the hill. You want to keep your body as perpendicular to the ground as possible so you can “let gravity take you” down the hill. Some runners find that if they push their hips forward or think “lean from the ankles” they get into a better downhill running position.
The big mistake runners make on downhills is to raise their arms and shoulders. That’s a big no no. Instead, lower arms. This helps you avoid leaning backwards which is also a big no no on downhills.
Cadence & foot plant
As with uphill running, shorter and faster strides work great on downhills. A long stride often encourages overstriding and causing a great deal of stress on the musculoskeletal system. Runners often find that to avoid overstriding, a focus on mid foot landing helps.
Whereas on up hills, you may think about lifting your knees, on downhills, you want to think about your back kick. Focusing on your “backside mechanics” as they call it, helps you leaning with the hill and generally results in a must faster downhill pace.
Fast and efficient
The last point on downhill running form is that you need to have two kinds. One is for going fast. Typically, leaning more with the hill and a quick cadence works great. This type of downhill form is essential for races that finish on a downhill. You’ll fly by the other runners!
The second type of downhill form you need is one that is efficient and reduces the stress on the musculoskeletal system. Downhill running is more stressful to the body so if you are running a long race with lots of downhill (think the Boston Marathon), you want to find a form that is very gentle on your body. This may be different than your fast downhill form but it will save your legs for later in the race. Experiment and observe your body. You’ll quickly find the form that is most efficient for you on downhills.
For full details on downhill running form, here is my full video.
Adding hills to your plan
As mentioned earlier, hill training works great after you’ve built a base of running and before you do speed work. Here’s a common way I sequence my plans for my half, full and ultra marathoners:
Another long race in ~6 months
Half/Marathon Recovery Plan – up to 4 weeks
Base training plan – up to 8 weeks
Hill Module training plan (optional) – up to 6 weeks
Speed Module training plan (optional) – up to 6 weeks
Half-Marathon | Marathon | Ultra training plan – up to 16
Total length = 16-36 weeks
You can read more about all of the scenarios I use in these two articles
Early in plan
Some runners don’t have the time to do a full sequence of plans so in these cases, I suggest adding hill training early in your race plan. Sprinkle 4-5 hill workouts in the first 6 weeks of your plan and you’ll be ready to really attack the race-specific workouts in the last 6-8 weeks of your plan.
Sprinkled in if hilly race or other
Another way I add hill training is for runners who goal race will involve hills. If your race has significant hills and/or you feel you need to work on your hill running technique, then sprinkle in hill training throughout your race plan. And the more the hill training matches the terrain of your race, the better.
What if you live in a flat area but are running a hilly race? That’s a common question I get and there are two very good solutions. The best is to run your hill workouts on a treadmill. You can play around with the incline setting to get the perfect “hill” for what you want. Just remember that there is a lag in building up the pace for the uphill and reducing the pace as you recover between each repeat, which makes treadmill hill workouts harder than true hill repeats.
Some runners in flat areas also use parking garages or bridges for their hill training. Obviously, you are limited in variety but it’s better than nothing. And if you have absolutely no hills available, you simply convert the workout in a fartlek (speed play) workout matching the duration, effort, recovery and number of repetitions from the hill workout.
Another option is to hit the gym. Any leg exercises can help build leg strength. Squats, lunges, step ups, step downs and all other leg exercises can be beneficial. Of course, the closer the exercise is to the movements in running the better.
Hills as plyometric training
The last way hills are used is for plyometric training. Arthur Lydiard, one of the greatest coaches to walk the planet, did a lot of this. After the base was built, his runners would do running drills up hills to prepare their legs for the rigors of the upcoming speed training. It helped reduce injuries and improve performance in the race-specific training.
Lydiard used three types of hill training drills:
Steep Hill Running
With Lydiard’s method, you don’t “run” up the hill for speed. Instead, you focus on the steep hill as a running form drill. To do this type of plyometric hill training, think “high knees” and don’t cover very much horizontal distance with each stride. And as always, you maintain excellent posture while doing this drill.
With hill bounding, you now focus on a big bound high and forward as you move up the hill driving the arms to help propel you, similar to a long jumper in his final powerful push off the leg before the flight into the sand pit.
This drill is all about power and driving your body up the hill with large effort. You put a lot of energy into pushing hard against the ground, straightening your rear leg as you propel yourself up the hill.
With hill springing, you take the technique for hill bounding but instead of bounding high and forward, you just focus on the bounding high part. This provides a very strong stimulus to the foot, ankle, Achilles and calves. You can see why doing these plyometric hill workouts developed runners who could handle any type of speed training.
These drills are very stressful to the body. You need to be prepared. Lydiard never let any runner start the hill training if he was not prepared for it. Younger runners can usually adapt quickly to the drills whereas older and injury-prone runners need to be very careful if you decide to use these drills
I’m a big fan of hill running. I used hill repeats frequently in high school and feel hill training gave me the extra edge I needed to win the state championship in the mile. Twenty years later, I used hill training in my preparation before winning the National Championship in the trail marathon.
Throughout my runner career and now as a coach, I just find hills are like a short cut to success. Include them in your plan in one of the ways described in this article and you nearly always end up with a successful race.
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