Everything Runners Need to Know About Hill Work

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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Everything Runners Need to Know About Hill Work

[Music swells.] The hills are aliiiiive with the sound of … panting.

Or so it seems if you’ve spent time in a competitive city race, whether a 5K or a marathon. Somehow, no one tells you about the hills, so you train on a relatively flat surface (like a track, or your neighborhood sidewalks), forgetting you can’t avoid the inclines in a race.

Which is where hill work comes in. Not only will it help you set a PR the next time you run competitively, it’s a great (and fast) workout for your body — a quick (though not easy) way to build speed and strength.

Here’s what you need to know:

1

YOU NEED A HILL

The Goldilocks’ principle applies here: You’re looking for a hill that’s not too small, not too big, not too steep, not too level … just right. As with any other form of running (or exercise, really), you want to challenge yourself without overexerting to strengthen your body without injuring it. It might take some time to find the perfect hill (or hills) for your workout, but embrace it as an opportunity for exploration. Two quick and easy options for the impatient: A treadmill with an incline option, or the nearest high school track with bleachers (and, therefore, stairs).

2

IT’S LIKE RUNNING, BUT DIFFERENT

Like any run, hill work builds your legs and overall cardio. But doing so requires being in tune with your body, mindful of any forward or backward lean or any side-to-side tilting. This is because your body compensates for the increase in elevation by increasing your stride cadence (i.e., you’ll be taking more steps at a faster rate) and shortening your stride length. This makes your workout more like climbing stairs than sprinting across a flat surface — indeed, running up stairs is a great way to do hill work.

3

IT’S A FULL-ON WORKOUT

Hill work helps strengthen those calf and quad muscles you need to run both faster and better. You’ll be taking more steps over a shorter amount of space and working your cardiovascular system, all of which enhances your overall running ability. Your knees benefit from the extra lifts, which also increases your power.

4

DON’T FORGET TO RUN BACK DOWN

There’s a downside, but that’s actually an upside. Running downhill extends your calves and quads, giving them an extra workout compared to your standard flat (or flat-ish) run. Over time, this adds strength and power — all of which benefit you no matter how inclined (or not) your race surface is. (Just be mindful of your joints when you’re going down, and if you’re on a trail, pay extra attention to your footing. You don’t want to get hurt out there!)

A SAMPLE HILL WORKOUT

You’re going to be doing hill repeats — basically, short sprints up a hill that’s between a 5–15% incline. (You should be able to measure the incline through Google Maps, by the way, by mapping it as a biking route. Some routes on MapMyRun include elevation, too.)

  • Warmup with easy running, between 1–4 miles, depending on your experience level, desired workout and available time.
  • From the bottom of the hill, perform 5–10 sprints of 15–30 seconds each, resting to walk or jog back downhill between each. Be mindful of your form — you should be going all out, running nearly to the point of exhaustion with a few seconds remaining, all while maintaining an upright posture and steady (albeit shortened) strides. Start with 5–6 repeats, then work up to 20 during subsequent workouts — again, adjusting your workout based on your ability level and desired workout. Over time, you get stronger, faster and more powerful — and you’ll see the results in your regular runs.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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