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Hills For Runners

by Steve

Frank Shorter was once quoted as saying “Hills are speed work in disguise”. Hills have become synonymous with most distance runners training programmes in some shape or form. If used wisely they can bring huge benefits for endurance runners of all ages and levels. Whether you are training for the 800m or the Marathon then hills should be a part of your week. Hills can be done anywhere, you can use a grass hill, road hill, sand dunes, mountain trails or the treadmill at a gradient. When we run on hills it provides a very specific and important muscular strength component. During hill workouts our body weight is being used as resistance in a way that is very specific to running.

The benefit we get from using the various types of hills depends on the following factors:

  • The total workout volume
  • The duration of the rep
  • The pace of the rep
  • The type (walk/jog) & length of the recovery
  • The steepness of the hill

If we run the hills too fast, or run too long, or don’t have enough recovery, or run hills that are too steep etc it all impacts on the benefit and the adaptation you get from that workout. It also impacts on how much recovery the athlete may need following the workout which in turn can impact on the other training prescribed for the week.

When choosing what type of hills to do consider the following factors:

What training adaptation are you looking for?

What event are you training for?

What time of the season is it?

What training has come before and what comes following the hill workout day?

Hill training brings multiple benefits to all athletes including:

Increased leg strength

Increased power

Better running form

Increased muscle fiber recruitment

Improved aerobic capacity

Less pounding involved, minimal stress on joints

Improves running economy

Improves lactate tolerance

Helps prevent injuries

Improves race performance

Prepares athlete for hilly races

Types of Hills:
1) Short Hill Sprints
The idea is to run for 8-12 seconds up a steep hill (7-10% grade) at maximum effort. These are done at maximum effort while holding your best possible form. After each rep, you take a full 2-3 minute walk recovery. These types of hill sprints stimulate the neuromuscular system and increase maximal stroke volume in the heart. The neuromuscular system is the communication vehicle between your brain and your muscles. Increasing the efficiency of the neuromuscular system allows your brain to increase the speed at which it sends signals to the muscles and allows your body to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibers and fire them more forcefully. Enhancing maximal stroke volume increases the amount of blood your heart can pump with each stroke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and makes the heart more efficient. These should always be done on a firm surface rather than grass. They can be done following an easy run or done before an aerobic type workout.
Sample Workout: 4-8 * 8-12 secs with a full 2-3 min walk recovery (Start with 2-3 reps and add one per week until you reach 6-10 depending on your level of conditioning)

2) Anaerobic Hills

The idea is to run some hills of roughly 30-50 seconds in duration fast with a very slow walk back down for recovery. The hill gradient should be less than what is used for the short hill sprints. The purpose behind these types of hills is to stimulate the anaerobic system and to recruit muscle fibers full of lactate.

Sample workout: 6-10 * 30-50 secs with a very slow walk/jog back down recovery

3) Aerobic Hills

The aim here is to create an aerobic stimulus, improving the athlete’s aerobic conditioning and developing leg strength, raise VO2, improve running economy and threshold. These hills are done on a moderate gradient of roughly 4-6%, running uphill at a controlled steady pace BUT on reaching the top the athlete makes sure the recovery jog back down is done at a faster than easy pace. We do not want to run hard up and be walking/jogging very slow back down, we want controlled up with a steady jog back down recovery. More reps and/or sets is better here not faster!!!

Sample Workouts:

  • 6-12*30-60 secs with jog back down easy recovery
  • 4-8*90 secs with jog back down recovery
  • 4-8*2 mins with jog back down recovery
  • 3-6*3 mins with jog back down recovery
  • 1-3 sets of (15/30/45/60/45/30/15 secs) with 3 mins walk recovery between sets and jog back down recovery between reps
  • 2-4 sets of (2 mins/90 secs/60 secs/30 secs) with 3 mins walk recovery between sets and jog back down recovery between reps
  • 2-4 sets of (30 secs/60 secs/90 secs/2 mins) with 3 mins walk recovery between sets and jog back down recovery between reps
  • 2-4 sets of (30 secs/90 secs/2.5 mins/90 secs/30 secs) with 3 mins walk recovery between sets and jog back down recovery between reps

4) Aerobic/Anaerobic Mixed Hills

Here we mix some aerobic type hills with some anaerobic type hills to stimulate both energy systems. We have more of a balance on the aerobic side with slightly less of an anaerobic stimulus.
Sample Workout: 1-4 sets of 360 secs Aerobic Hills (Jog back down steady recovery) into 320-30 secs Hills (walk back slow recovery) and 5 mins walk between sets

5) 3km-10km Uphill Tempo
This is essentially a straight tempo effort of somewhere between 3km-8km uphill on a gentle gradient 2-6%. US coach Brad Hudson describes it as “combining muscular strength with an aerobic component all aimed at building fatigue resistance”. This type of workout is both physically and mentally challenging. With the entire workout being done uphill athletes have to deal with less pounding and tend to recover quicker. The problem may be finding a hill that goes on for the duration required and that has a nice gentle gradient.
Sample Workout: 2km-6km continuous tempo effort followed by 4-6*80m fast strides on the flat

6) Long Run over Hills
All athletes of all ages/levels should run their long runs over a rolling terrain, this provides a more challenging run and really helps improve length strength, aerobic conditioning and mental tenacity.
Sample Workout: Long Runs (60-120 minutes in duration starting on week one with for example 50 minutes and add 5-10 mins per week. Aim to first build up to target time on your feet and then add in variations listed below)
1) Long Run over rolling hills
2) Long Run with the last 2-6 miles @ roughly marathon pace progressing the last mile towards half marathon pace followed by 4*80m fast strides
3) Long Run with last 1-2 miles as 20 secs stride/40 secs easy jog
4) Long Run with tempo intervals included within it such as 5 min Tempo effort at each 15 min mark starting at 30-40 mins mark
5) Long Run with last 2-3 miles up a steady gradient
6) Long Run with 45-60 sec surges @ roughly 5km pace every 5 mins from the 45 min mark

7) Threshold over Hills
For any type of Threshold workouts (approx 80-92% of HR Max or roughly 10km-Half Marathon pace zone dependoij gon the person (but to know more accurately then test in lab or on track using HR/Lactate). These can be done over rolling hills also and don’t always have to be done on the flat. If you are going to be racing over hilly courses then make sure to do some workouts over same type of terrain.

Sample Workouts:

1) Short Tempo Intervals (800m reps): 5k pace plus 20-30 seconds per mile (Recovery 30 secs between reps)
Medium Tempo Intervals (1 mile reps): 5k pace plus 30-30 seconds per mile (Recovery 1 minute between reps)
Long Tempo Intervals (1.5 mile reps): 5k pace plus 40-50 seconds per mile (Recovery 1.5 minutes between reps)
2) CV (Critical Velocity) 1000m reps done at 5km pace per km plus 8-12 secs with a volume of 4-8 reps and 60-90 secs jog rec
3) Continuous Tempo 3-6 miles with no break @ roughly Half Marathon-Marathon Pace
4) 6-10 Mile Progression Run (Start at easy run pace and progress to slightly slower than 10km pace for last mile, dropping in increments of roughly 10-15 secs per mile)

As you can see hills can be used in many ways and achieve many things. The number of hills, sets, recovery, pace etc should all be specific to the individual athlete and their goal race distance. The bottom line is as coaches we know hills work in creating better runners. Include them in your training year round and reap the rewards!!!

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