Most runners associate hill sprints with race-specific training, i.e., when you are training for a race that has a notoriously hilly course or where you know that there are one or more hills that could decide your race result. However, hill workouts can be beneficial for so much more than that, from building explosive speed and strength that will give you an advantage on flat ground, to helping you stay away from injuries and develop mental toughness.
Learn how to add hill sprints into your running routine to get essential benefits and reduce the risk of injury in this quick guide. We’ll cover:
- Why hill sprints are a secret weapon in any runner’s toolkit;
- The benefits of hill sprints for road and trail runners;
- How to add hill sprints to your running workouts;
- Essential hill workouts to develop technique and stride power.
What Does Sprinting Uphill Do? The Reason You Should Do Hill Sprints
Aside from the running uphill aspect, sprinting is a fantastic way to train for speed and strength on flat ground. Incorporating speed work into your workout plans will add fun and variety to your running while also preparing you for your favorite races.
Mixing it up even further by adding hills into your speed work will yield even more benefits than “regular” speed training. This is because running up hills takes away some of the potentials for injury that you might encounter when track running (simply because you cannot go as fast as on a flat surface!). Hill running also makes your body work differently, creating the need to adjust your stance and tilt your body to match the incline you are running up. This can improve your running form on the flat as well since you’re basically replicating the perfect sprinting form (think of Olympic sprinters such as Usain Bolt in action, especially when starting out of the blocks).
Additionally, sprinting up hills is a great cardiovascular workout, getting your heart rate up quickly and efficiently. When you run up hills, you are pushing your aerobic system to the maximum, trying to go fast with the added challenge of the incline. Maintaining proper form is essential here, and staying upright will also require you to recruit your calf muscles more, engage your core, and work on your upper body strength more than you might expect. As a result, not just your breathing and your leg muscles will see a positive impact from hill sprints, but also your whole body.
These are just some of the ways in which hill sprints help you become a better runner. Finally, the ultimate reason to include hill sprints in your workouts is that they ultimately make you the best prepared runner on the start line of any event. If running a hilly route, you’ll have trained for the course. If running on flat terrain, the hills will have contributed to your strength training, built your endurance and speed, and boosted your resilience. And, if you’re not racing at all, hill sprints still contribute fun, variety, and injury prevention into your running practice.
5 Benefits of Running Up That Steep Hill
Whether you’re training for a road marathon or a hilly off-road race, you can develop great endurance, speed and resilience from hill workouts. While the number of hill sprints you should include in your training program will vary depending on the race you train for, a few weeks where you run up steep hills can benefit all runners.
According to run coaches and runners alike, here are some of the top benefits you can expect from high-intensity interval training using hills.
Hill sprints boost your muscle strength
Thanks to the added resistance of running on an incline, doing hill workouts are almost equivalent to strength training. They contribute to developing your quadriceps, hamstrings and calves primarily, as well as your glutes, which help you power up the hill. Moreover, working on your technique to help keep you upright and boost your speed, you’ll also strengthen your upper body as you use your arms to propel you upward and forward.
Including hills in your interval training is a great way to develop strength and resilience in your connective tissues and muscles. This also helps lower the risk of injury, compared to track or flat speed training, where you are more likely to get injured by running at your maximum speed. The theory is that doing hill sprints gets you to put out maximum effort without reaching your top speed, so you’re less likely to get injured.
Additionally, training on hills will prepare you to encounter them in the “real world” and build your awareness of hill conditions. Many runners get injured in races on terrain they just aren’t prepared for, so getting used to hills will help you stay injury-free in these environments.
Develop good running form
When you run uphill, you practice some key elements of good running form, including:
- Lifting your knees high at a 90-degree angle;
- Landing more on your forefoot than on your heel;
- Increasing your cadence;
- Controlling your breathing.
None of these are mastered on the first try, but running up a hill forces you to think of these elements more than your usual flat run. Over time, improving your running form will make you faster and will keep you away from injury.
Becoming a more efficient runner
This is also a long-term benefit that distance runners will welcome especially. Hill repeats done a few times throughout a training cycle will help you develop more power – especially if you perform short explosive hill sprints (e.g., the 10-second sessions described below). When you focus on your maximum speed output in these sprints, you not only work on your cardiovascular and muscle strength, but you also develop stride power.
A higher power output when you run will develop a better overall running efficiency, which means you’re using up less energy during your runs. In a marathon or ultramarathon, this translates into more energy deployed for longer, which is invaluable for longer races.
Hill workouts help toughen you up
Mental resilience is another massive benefit of working out on hills. You are working hard, suffering through a more strenuous running workout than on the flat, and you’re building experience that will put you in good stead when you’re running on race day. Every training session performed in adverse conditions, whether it’s bad weather or going up a hill you’re dreading, makes you more resilient for whatever adversity may come your way later down the line. This is how hill workouts develop critical mental fortitude, which you’ll draw upon in your races.
All in all, performing hill sprint workouts contribute to a number of factors that make you a better runner. From strengthening your muscles and your cardiovascular system to building mental toughness and developing skills for the hills and good running form, doing hill workouts on a regular basis is beneficial to all runners.
Adding Hill Sprints Into Your Training Regime
Firstly, including sprint workouts in your training program will benefit any race you’re preparing for. Hill sprint intervals take that one step further, adding more resistance and mental toughness to get through while also preparing you specifically for a hilly race if that’s what you are training for.
How should you include hill workouts in your training plan? Performed correctly, these are short and fast workouts, which you can complete in just 20 minutes. At the same time, they are very intense and require you to recruit your muscles and cardio system to give 100 percent effort. This means you shouldn’t stress your body more often than needed, i.e., don’t do hill sprints more than once a week.
If you are training for a short, hilly course, then ensure that your more specific training is closer to the race. This will get your brain wired to run in the same way as needed on race day. However, if you’re not training for a hilly race but just want to build strength and stamina, we would advise using hill sprints as part of your speedwork earlier on in your training program and removing them in favor of flatter interval sessions closer to race day.
Additionally, remember that hill sprints will start with a total effort time of 5-10 minutes, topping out at maybe 20 minutes of hard effort (plus warm-up and cool-down). This means they’re easy to fit into a week of running and can even be performed on your favorite hill during a longer endurance session.
Finally, a hill workout can be a great mental break from your regular training routine, especially if most of your training is done on roads. So, if hills aren’t your focus, consider adding a quick session, maybe once every two weeks, to mix things up a little.
Top 3 Hill Workouts You Can Try Now
Here are three ideas for hill workouts you can do once a week or whenever you’re inspired to tackle that incline. You’ll need a steep hill you can run up in no less than 2 minutes to allow you to perform the sprints properly. If you can’t find a hill, an indoor treadmill with a steep enough incline (15% ideally) is also an excellent alternative to build explosive power away from the hills.
Workout #1: 10-second sprints
The most efficient way to do hill sprints is in short bursts that force you to work at your top rate of perceived exhaustion. Don’t focus on your speed – in fact, don’t even look at your watch; you won’t have time for it! Instead, simply sprint all-out for 10 seconds, trying to remember good running technique, including arm swings, upright back, and high knees.
Here’s how to do it:
- Warm up for 20 minutes at an easy pace, including some dynamic stretches and drills such as high knees, strides and bum flicks;
- Position yourself at the start of the steepest section of the hill you’ll be running up;
- Sprint up for 10 seconds, then walk back down for a total of 2 minutes recovery (so you’ll be running for 10 seconds, recovering for 1 minute 50 seconds);
- Do this 8 times for 1 set to begin with;
- As you get stronger, progress to 2 sets of 8 reps, then increase to 12-second and 15-second sprint intervals;
- Cool down with a light jog for 10-20 minutes.
Workout #2: Progressive hill sprints
This workout prepares you for longer hills and helps modulate your speed on an incline. You’ll still work out for short intervals, but the speed will naturally decrease as you run for longer, as will your rest intervals. This is a good way to develop fatigue resistance and to think of your running form a bit more (as you’ll have more time on your intervals).
Here’s the workout:
- Begin with a progressive warm-up, jogging for 20 minutes and performing some warm-up drills as above. Think of including a few walking lunges and finish off with three 10-second accelerations, progressively aiming for faster speeds (so do the first one at 80% of your maximum, then 90%, then a full effort for the last one);
- Run up the hill in progressive intervals, as follows: 10, 20, 30, 60, 120 seconds;
- For every sprint, recover by walking back to the start and round up to an easy start point on your watch;
- As you get fitter, do this set twice, or add a couple more intervals of 150 and 180 seconds if your hill is long enough (remember, you need to keep going at a decent incline, but around 8-10% will be fine for these longer efforts);
- If you’re struggling to keep running after 30 seconds, switch to a power hike with your hands on your knees, pushing for added power;
- Once done, cool down with an easy jog.
This is an excellent workout to do when you’re working on preparing mountain races, which will more often than not require you to switch to power walking or hiking to conserve your energy on long climbs.
Workout #3: Pyramid hills
A variation on workout #2, develop your endurance even further and teach your body to perform in your final sprint finish by pushing out a fast interval at the end of your workout. The same idea of power walking on longer stretches applies here as well, but make sure you sprint during the 20 and 10-second intervals:
- Warm up as before;
- Perform your hill sprints in a pyramid formation: 10-20-30-60-30-20-10 seconds each;
- Recover by walking down the hill;
- Run at maximum effort on the 10 and 20-second intervals, power walk on 30 and 60-second ones if you need to;
- Cool down.
Hill Sprints – Not Just For Mountain Runners!
Including 1-2 sprints per week in your workout plan is a great way to inject speed, variety and fun into your running programs. Making them hill sprints gives you a whole host of added benefits, from added strength training to building mental resilience that will prove invaluable in tough races. And you don’t have to be a mountain runner to enjoy hill sprints: developing good running technique and added power makes you a better runner on the road and in flat races, too.