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  • Writer's pictureAnnie Bothma

CONQUERING THE CLIMB SERIES: 10 OF THE BEST HILL-WORKOUTS FOR RUNNERS

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

~ By Annie Bothma, January 2023

In the previous two posts, I explained the benefits of running uphill and provided you with some of my personal tips for becoming a better uphill runner. But, what about uphill workouts? How should you be incorporating hills into your training program as a runner, aside from just running hilly routes on your easy runs?



In this last post of the conquering the climb series, I will explain a few of the best hill-workouts that runners can do to improve their fitness. I included some the staple hill-workout in my own training program. I also share some of the workouts I did under Coach Erick Kimaiyo with the current female world record holder in the marathon, Brigid Kosgei, while living in Kenya at 3000m above sea-level.



1. HILL SPRINTS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

Hill sprints are more like strides or drills that you do after a run. They’re only 8-10 seconds in length, but these short, max-intensity sprints up the steepest hill you can find is a great way to increase leg strength, improve your running form and build speed. Since you are moving at max speed up a very steep incline, you will have to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible to helping you power up the hill. This has the potential to:

  • Increase stride power.

  • Engage more muscle fibers than flat running.

  • Improve running economy.

  • Strengthens muscles and connective tissues that may help with injury prevention.

WORKOUT EXAMPLES:

  • 8-10 seconds max-out against a steep incline.


 

2. SHORT HILL-REPEATS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

Short hill repetitions are the classical workout that most runners think of about when they envision a hill workout. These reps usually consist of 60-90 seconds burst against an honest hill with a jog down recovery. You basically just turn around at the end of the rep and run easy down to the bottom before turning around to start again.


Typically they are done at 3k-10k effort on a 4-7% grade hill. Meaning they are short and fast with the goal to improve power, strength and ultimately speed! It is a classic VO2 Max workout, helping the body increase its ability to deliver and process oxygen to hard-working muscles. But there’s also a significant strength aspect, making this a great workout for runners who struggle with injuries.


There’s a lot of flexibility in designing short hill rep workouts. Vary the pace, length of rep, and number of reps to suit your needs. You can also work on distance instead of time, if you prefer. For example: 8-10 x 200m-400m hills.


WORKOUT EXAMPLES:

  • 8-10 x 90-sec hills at 10k Effort

  • 8-10 x 60-sec hills at 5k Effort

  • 8-10 x 45-sec hills at 3k Effort

  • Descending ladder: 3-4 x 90-sec, 3-4 x 60-sec, 3-4 x 45-sec starting at 10k Effort and getting progressively faster with each set.


 

3. LONG HILL-REPEATS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

Long hill reps of 2-10 minutes can be used for a variety of reasons:

  • Early strength-building during the base phase of training.

  • A type of tempo workout (if the pace is kept under control).

  • A replacement for shorter hill reps if an easier day is needed.

In my own training they form a key component in the base phase of my marathon training cycles where I am focused on building strength and improving my endurance.


WORKOUT EXAMPLES:

  • 8-10 x 2:00 hills at 15K Effort

  • 8-10 x 4:00 hills at Half-marathon Effort

  • 8-10 x 8:00 hills at Marathon Effort


 

4. HILLY-CIRCUITS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

Hill circuits are a challenging and more advance type of hill workout, because the recovery jog is done at a faster pace. This reduces the amount that you’re able to recover between repetitions which makes the workout more aerobically demanding.These sessions are similar to track workouts with “cruise recoveries” where the rest period is run at a more challenging pace. This is my personal favorite type of hill workout!


WORKOUT EXAMPLES:

  • 10 x 90-sec hills at 5k race effort, jog down recovery at marathon effort

  • 10 x 60-sec hills at 10k race effort, jog down at marathon/half marathon effort

  • 10 x 45-sec hills at 3k race effort, jog down recovery at 10k/half marathon effort


 

5. UPHILL TEMPOS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

This is not an all-out race effort or “king of the hill" type of workout. The idea behind uphill tempo runs is to maintain a comfortably tough intensity for relatively long durations of time. The main stress of this workout comes from the amount of climbing or vertical gain you are putting on your legs. Therefore, it is important to pace yourself and manage your intensity so that you are still able to run with good running form. If you just start sprinting up the hill to at the beginning, you will most likely be breathing too hard and forced to stop the workout early.


DESCRIPTION:

  • After an easy warm-up jog, follow it up with some light stretching and 100-meter flat accelerations at faster than 5km pace (for example 4 x 100m fast walking back to the starting point after each acceleration).

  • Find a very long hill or mountain trail that climbs at about 5-10 % average grade.

  • If you don't have access to this type of terrain you can even use the treadmill on an incline-setting.

  • The goal is to put in a steady, tempo run effort while climbing this hill for 30-minutes or up to 60-minutes for advanced runners.

  • For most people this is between about 85-90% of max heart-rate, or about or about an 8/10 RPE (Rate of Perceived Excretion or Effort). Just remember, with steep uphill grades, especially at altitude your pace may be a lot slower compared to your usual flat running tempo speed.


 

6. UPHILL LONG RUNS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

This was one of my Kenyan coach's favorite workouts. We would either get up in the middle of the night and drive down from 3000m above sea-level to a lower elevation of 2000m to start running back up to camp at the crack of dawn. He would drop us off and we would began the long climb back up to camp. The classic long run was a 38km run where we gained about 1500m of elevation over the course of the distance!


Sometimes we ran from our camp to an even higher elevation of 3500m above sea-level. We would be driving and coach would point to some random mountain in the distance and say: "Tomorrow, we are running to the top of that mountain!" These long runs were by far the hardest for me! By the end, I was gasping for more oxygen as the air grew thinner and thinner with every step up to the top of the mountain!


Needless to say, uphill long runs has the potential to increase your mental and physical strength to another level!


DESCRIPTION:

  • First, you need to find a point to point course that would give up a net uphill elevation chart. You will also need some assistance for this one.

  • Ask a friend, training partner, relative or your coach to drop you off at a starting location that is lower than your finishing location (or home) or ask them to wait for you at the higher finishing point.

  • The specific distance you want to cover and the amount of elevation you gain throughout the long run will depend on the race you are busy preparing for, as well as the where you are currently at in your training cycle.


 

7. HILLY-FARTLEK


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

Take your fartlek to the next level and do it on hilly terrain. Fartleks are a form of speed-play where you run hard for a set amount of time or distance and then jog for the recovery. Whilst training in Kenya we did all our fartlek sessions on hilly dirt roads or trails. It is very hard when you hit a hard running interval on a steep incline, but that is part of what makes it a good workout and what will improve your fitness! But, sometimes you will get lucky and your hard-running interval falls on a downhill! Embrace it!


WORKOUT EXAMPLES:

  • 1:1 x 10-30

    • 1-minute hard, followed by 1:00 easy for a total of 20-minutes for beginners and up to 60-minutes for advanced runners.

  • 2:1 x 5-15

    • 2-minutes hard, followed by 1-minute easy for a total of 15-minutes for beginners and up to 60-minutes for advanced runners.


 

8. SNAKES & LADDERS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

This different type of hill workout where you are just using your environment to create a challenge! It is for those type of runners that like to run free without a watch or don't really enjoy structured workouts with set paces or distances. However, you do need a bit of a specific training setting for this workout to work well. This use to be one of my go-to runs while living in Cape Town next to the coast line.


DESCRIPTION:

  • Find two roads that run parallel to each other. The road one is lower in elevation than the other with hills connecting the two roads. You will start on the lower section, run hard up the hill to the higher road, continue on with the road and then come back down to the lower section with the next. Continue this sequence until you reach the end of the roads and then you work your way back to the start!

  • Alternatively, you can run on a route you know have a lot of up and downs. Each time you approach a hill, give it a honest effort and run strong to the top, focus on your form coming down and running fast without forcing it. Use the flat sections to recover and just run easy.


 

9. HILLY LOOPS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

If you don't have a lot of hills in your area, try find a loop course that has at least one decent hill. Although this may not be ideal, it is better than doing no hills at all! Plus, it is what you make of it! It can be quite a fun workout.


You want a loop to be around 1-4 km in duration with one or two hills incorporated into the loop. Run easy until you reach the hill, then attack the hill! Run at a hard effort to the top, recover on the downhill and then continue with the loop. Repeat the loop 2-4 times. Try run each loop progressively faster.


WORKOUT EXAMPLES:

  • 2-4 x Hilly-loops following the above specifications.

  • Do a time-trial on the loop and see it you can beat your previous best time!


 

10. UPHILL DRILLS


THE GOAL BEHIND THE WORKOUT

Running drills will help you with your technique and form so that you can run more efficiently and stay injury-free. Instead on doing running drills on a flat surface do them on a gradual incline. Do each drill for 10 to 20 meters, and go through the sequence at least once. Over time you can work up to repeating the sequence 2 to 3 times. Aim to incorporate at least one to two drill sessions into your running program each week.


WORKOUT EXAMPLES:

Click on the name of the exercise to watch a youtube video on how it is done.



CONCLUSION

If you aren't yet doing hill-workouts as part of your training program yet, I would urge you to give it go. Doing hill-training on a regular basis will make you a stronger runner both mentally and physically. It could also potentially hep you reduce your likelihood of getting injured.


If you need help structuring your training program and don't know how to make hill-training a part of your weekly running schedule, consider signing-up at www.anniesathletes.org for running coaching.


What is your favorite type of hill workout? Comment below if you tried any of the above workouts and let me know which one you enjoyed this most.


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