Frank Shorter is known for saying, “Hills are speed work in disguise.” His quote is true whether you’re going up the hill or down it. You just need to make sure you don’t avoid doing it. Hills are massively beneficial for athletes. Running them regularly not only provides technical skills so you can run up them better in races, but they also provide strength gains from fighting the grade and gravity. These strength gains evoke physical adaptations not seen anywhere else in training.
Mechanical Benefits of Hill Work
When we think about strength we often think about weight training and repetition. Hills are approached in much the same manner in terms of sets and repetitions. What you gain mechanically from hills that you can’t gain from weight training lies in the mechanical benefits of proper foot strike, lean and form practice. Anything you do repetitively induces a neuromuscular response. So if you continually do something wrong, you will do it more often.
The beautiful part of uphill running is that it is very difficult to run hills with poor form. The increased grade of a hill requires a forward lean, forefoot strike, and an efficient arm swing. Practicing hills is form practice with a massive aerobic benefit.
Uphill running also provides a large neuromuscular benefit as you are engaging a large number of muscle groups, which work together to create a more powerful and active neural network. When you awaken parts of your body or challenge it through stimulus, you can expect a response. It is not uncommon for an athlete to be extremely mentally taxed after a strenuous hill workout.
Hills aren’t just a one-way option. Downhill running can have big benefits for athletes but should be approached with caution due to the risk of injury. Short, steep downhills can be a great place for sprint- and short-distance runners to practice overspeed training. This requires you to have excellent form and the ability to match leg speed to the ground. This is truly only recommended for experienced runners on smooth dirt roads or grassy hills.
Technical descending is also a huge part of trail running that requires practice and mastery. Hand and foot coordination can be aided through ladder and speed drills commonly done by power sports athletes. The more technical trail the more mentally taxing it can be as speed and technicality mean your brain has to plan further (and farther!) ahead.
Physiological Advantage of Hill Running
Hill workouts can be manipulated in many ways through five variables: grade, intensity, volume, length, and time. Any of these variables can be combined to create results in a specific stimulus. A few examples below show how you can tweak workouts to achieve certain results; it’s up to you or your coach to define how to use hills to gain an advantage. Hills require eccentric and concentric movement patterns, which are the basic building blocks of any athlete’s development. You will see that both power athletes and endurance athletes use hills to start off a cycle, or touch on it throughout training to increase efficiency.
Short Steep Hills (<12 sec, 10+ percent grade)
Short and steep requires a huge neuromuscular response and raw power requirement. If kept truly anaerobic, no lactate is produced so the higher rep version can be used as a pre-workout (day before) neuromuscular stimulus—similar to strides.
- Low reps/ high intensity: neuromuscular development, anaerobic development, and raw power
- High reps/ moderate intensity: neuromuscular development, mechanical practice and speed development
Short Steep Hills (>12 sec, 10+ percent grade)
Slightly longer reps can work on extending a response from the last category. Athletes can take burst speed and extend it to lasting power. Most athletes should approach this with max effort, slower running will not provide the mechanical or neuromuscular advantage these are designed for.
- Low rep/ high intensity: neuromuscular development, high aerobic development, burst strength and power
- High rep/ moderate intensity: neuromuscular development, high aerobic development, fatigue resistance and mechanical speed
Moderate Hills (12 to 30 seconds, 6-percent to 10-percent grade)
Longer hills provide more time to marinate in lactate. Changing rest between reps has the same effect as extended or shortened rest between interval reps on a track. Most athletes should approach these efforts with one-mile to sprint-type efforts.
- Low rep/ high intensity: neuromuscular development, mechanical speed and high aerobic development
- High rep/ moderate intensity: Neuromuscular development, high aerobic development, fatigue resistance and mechanical speed
Long Hills (30 seconds to one minute, 4-percent to 10-percent grade)
The longer you make the hill, the less maximal intensity you can apply. However, long hills can provide a fatigue-resistance benefit where you are working at the critical zone sooner than flat interval running. Basic athletes will approach efforts of this length at one mile to 5K-type effort.
- Low rep/ high intensity: neuromuscular development, increased mechanical recruitment and increased fatigue resistance
- High rep/ moderate intensity: neuromuscular development, high-to-moderate aerobic development, fatigue resistance and mechanical repetition
Extended Hills and Hill Climbs (1 minute and longer, 4-percent to 10-percent grade)
Hills in the one to three-minute range are considered extended hills and are normally utilized extensively for longer-distance athletes as fatigue resistance and lactate buffering workouts. The hill climb is used as a major tool for fatigue resistance, and can provide positive neuromuscular benefits due to the extended time utilizing proper form. Extended hills are done at 5K to half marathon effort as anything more intense would likely result in a large pace disparity for more than three repetitions.
- Low rep/ high intensity: neuromuscular development, fatigue resistance, lactate buffering, mechanical repetition and muscular recruitment
- High rep/ moderate intensity: neuromuscular development, high-to-moderate aerobic development, fatigue resistance, lactate buffering, muscular recruitment and mechanical repetition
- Long climbs: fatigue resistance, neuromuscular recruitment, lactate buffering and mental stamina
When Should You Run Hills?
There is no bad time to add in hill work as it can be used at the beginning of a cycle to recruit fast-twitch muscles for a sprinter or middle-distance athlete. It can be used early on as intro speed work and is a great tool for injury-prone athletes as it builds form and strength simultaneously. It is also good for newer runners to practice hills to learn good running form habits.
Hills can also be used in the middle of a cycle and touched on throughout a season. Extended climbs can be a good replacement for athletes mentally burned out on track repetitions. You can also mix-and-match intervals with hills to create a workout that has a sting at the end with hills to work on lactate buffering, and mental resistance teaching athletes good form and intensity once they’re already tired.
Hills are many coaches’ secret weapon to creating a powerful aerobic machine that is both strong and resistant to large loads of lactate. Don’t be afraid when you see a hill in your next workout, use it as an opportunity to focus on form!