The Ultimate Hill Training Guide

I bet you’ll agree with me when I say that hill training is dreadful, nasty, and no fun. They come off as tough, intimidating, terrifying – pop me some more negative adjectives, and I’m sure they’ll fit.

But are they really?

I used to be absolutely scared out of my wits of having to run up a hill. Now I accept it, in fact I sometimes even get pumped for it. Why? Because you can become such a powerhouse with just a few sessions sprinkled into your training plan. I wrote this guide to teach you exactly what works, and how you can use it to grow.

This hill training guide covers everything you need to know – the key differences between downhill and uphill, how length and incline can affect the training, guidelines on how to fit hills into a training plan, and more. Do you want to become a hill master? Check out below!

Table of Contents:

  1. The Ultimate Guide to Hill Training
  2. Training Downhill
  3. Supermaximal Speed
  4. Downhill Running Technique
  5. Training Uphill
  6. The Effects of Speed
  7. Uphill Running Technique
  8. Does Incline Make a Difference?
  9. Does Hill Length Make a Difference?
  10. Putting Hill Training into a Plan
  11. Scenarios
  12. Visual Guide
  13. Hills For Strength Training
  14. Hill Training Benefits
  15. Summary Infographic

The Ultimate Guide to Hill Training:

Now I’m sure you’re wondering whether I’ve been diagnosed as a crazy, but hill training is actually crazy good for improving your maximal running speed and fatigue tolerance. What if I don’t have enough leg power to run up a hill fast? Well that’s what hill training is for – target that weakness, and grow!

Whether you want to run distance or sprint, hills are essential to refining your body.

There are two types of hill running that I will be covering: Downhill running and uphill running.

Training Downhill:

Downhill running is all about descending down a decline. This type of workout gets the quadriceps activated and working hard to prevent your legs from buckling at the knees and collapsing. At the same time, by following through with this type of training and pushing the quads, you develop a greater resistance to delayed onset muscle soreness (which is the soreness you feel the day after) in your leg muscles.

A great deal of runners focus on training uphill, but there is a whole downhill aspect as well. The biggest benefit is improving pain resistance – this makes it easier to handle the high stress of more advanced training plans. The eccentric strength of the quads is improved, leading to springy yet stable legs. However, it’s best to not immediately (within the next day or two) follow this type of training with other high quality workouts as it’s been found to alter stride mechanics and reduce running economy for a few days after. (The Effects of a Single Bout of Downhill Running and Ensuing Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness on Running Economy Performed 48h Later)

So do you want killer quads? Run downhill, you’ll have thighs thicker than your chest!

Supermaximal Speed:

Another benefit is being able to use descents for supermaximal speed training – sprinting. The decline forces your legs to extend further than normal, while at the same time accelerating and propelling you faster down the slope. As you land every step, your body and muscles has to resist the great velocities and force being exerted.

So why does this matter?

Gravity, leg turnover rate, and stride length contribute to huge speeds. By watching your form and keeping leg turnover within reasonable limits, you’ll train your body to push with more power to resist the increased amount of energy pulling you down. In terms of improving speed, downhill running can really train your body to push with more force than normal.

What you need to be careful of is that you don’t push your leg turnover rate too fast or stride too far. By doing this, you end up losing time needed to exert proper force, leading to a decrease in performance if not muscle damage. We recommend not to focus too much of your supermaximal speed work with downhills – the risk of injury is high and if not done properly under guidance it could be detrimental to performance. (Electromyographic Activity in Sprinting at Speeds Ranging from Sub-Maximal to Supra-Maximal.)

Downhill Running Technique:

Coming down the hill is more strenuous than pushing up a hill. This is what can cause injury during a race, and by training with downhills you can decrease the risk of injury as your body will already have adapted.

So how do I prevent myself from hurting myself on a downhill?

Try these downhill running tips and tricks:

  • Land light and on your midfoot. Spring short, keeping low to the ground, to help land light.
  • Extend your stride ever so slightly.
  • Increase turnover rate to go faster rather than stride length.
  • Stay in control of your speed, slow down or speed up when necessary.
  • Decrease stride length when losing control, increase stride length when gaining control.
  • Keep the finish in sight (look down the hill).

One dangerous  way to run down a hill is to brake hard and slow yourself with every step rather than letting yourself gain speed and flow naturally. This places enormous stress of your quadriceps, and that could lead to a bad pull. Fortunately, a pull in a larger muscle group heals faster due to blood flow, but unfortunately, it’s still pulled. There’s not much you can do then!

Another dangerous way to run down a hill is to run full sprint without having built up to the pace on a downhill. Before you can use downhills for supermaximal speed training, you need to have build an adequate foundation first. This means slowly increasing the speed as your legs get stronger. Rushing it immediately could overstress your legs or do the opposite of one of the goals – instead of increasing pain resistance, you end up with no additional pain resistance, and instead just pain and extreme muscle soreness! Always be careful.

To prevent injury from downhill training, give time to cooldown and stretch. Loosen up your quadriceps, make sure they aren’t stiff and tight. Stay safe when running!

Training Uphill:

Now we’re getting to the scary stuff.

Uphill running is all about ascending an incline. Due to the nature of how the foot lands on a hill, your calves are forced through a wider range of motion, working them much harder. The best part? The velocity of calf muscle contraction improves 21% greater in uphill running than flat ground running. (Mechanical Function of Two Ankle Extensors in Wild Turkeys: Shifts from Energy Production to Energy Absorption During Incline Versus Decline Running, turkeys have similar muscles to us.)

The reason for the increased muscle contraction is due to the distance the muscle now has to travel in the same time to pull the heel up a safe amount with each stride. If that sentence doesn’t make sense yet, look at the diagram below:

So why should I care about this?

This increased muscle contraction speed lets you run with more power in every stride and thus push further with every stride. With more explosive calves, the ankles should bounce with more spring as well. Simply put, you become a faster runner. Amazing, right? Also, the strengthening of the calves leads to stability in the ankles and foot – improving running economy.

The Effects of Speed:

There are three ways you can train with an uphill – for goal pace, for absolute drive, or for building comfort. The third way is best tackled by your long runs out on hilly trails or roads. However, interval sessions can target the first and second.

For goal pace, you simply run up the hill at your goal pace. You’ll be expending more energy to run at that pace than you would otherwise, meaning you have to run less volume for the same quality. You’ll build the strength and lungs you need to hold that pace, whatever it may be.

Sprinters and bodybuilders will be looking for absolute drive to build muscle. You want to run up the hill in as little time as you can. Focus on form and drive, and you’ll build strong muscles.

But wait, here’s where watching speed is really important:

One problem that crushes runners is a hilly race. What tends to happen is that runners will want to keep the same pace they were holding, thus exerting way more energy trying to get up the hill. When faced with an uphill, you want to maintain the same effort level as you would on even ground. This saves you energy for later, and doesn’t tire out your legs to exhaustion.

Your lungs be able to handle climbing up the hill at the same pace, but your legs might go out on you. You’ll spend the rest of the race lacking the power you had at the beginning, making it impossible to hold the pace you once had anyway. This is considered a bottleneck – your lungs are bottlenecked by your legs.

To combat this, spend more time training on an incline to build the power you need. If it’s your lungs that are the bottleneck, hit the road and go for distance.

Uphill Running Technique:

A lot of wasted energy can come from running uphill – and since physics and biology have made it so that you lose more energy going uphill than you gain from going back downhill, you don’t want to waste any more energy than you have to. Retaining the original momentum and properly driving force with every step is important.

Uphill running tips and tricks:

  • Get up on your toes/balls of your feet to activate you calves with every step.
  • Run light on your feet, use your ankles to drive power.
  • Aim for equal effort.
  • Shorten your stride when the incline increases in grade.
  • Keep tall and sturdy, use your core to prevent slumping and swinging side to side. This saves your lower back from becoming sore or tight.

Climbing up a hill uses the calves on your legs the most, so utilize them! It only makes sense to run light and upright like a ballerina, as this is the targeted muscle group. Not only will this help you ascend faster, it will also lead to better running form on flatter grounds as well since you’ll be more likely to run on the balls of your feet.

That’s not all, here’s some more tips for running uphill:

  • To control your breathing, avoid overstriding and wasting energy by jumping too high. Overstriding can also tighten your leg muscles, increasing injury risk.
  • It’s easy to over swing your arms when hill running – this can cause tight and sore arms and shoulders.
  • Swing your arms straight forward and back to promote pushing the body forward rather than to the sides.

Does Incline Make a Difference?:

We know that the steeper the slope is, the harder it is to climb quickly. So that means that it must be better to train with, right? Not necessarily. Your stride length shortens and increases step counts when running up a higher incline. Additionally, you have to put more energy into each step than you would with a gentler slope. This means that it is more strengthening for your legs – if you’re into bodybuilding, this might be for you.

Nonetheless, training needs to be more than just about packing on muscle. The muscles you already have need to be developed and improved. Mitochondria and capillaries are essential to runners looking to go beyond 400m. Even if they don’t, sprinters could only find help from extra slow twitch muscle ability, as all fibers are recruited when they approach exhaustion.

This is where a gentler incline can help. Short incline hill training won’t require as much power, but it can be used as a way to train your endurance and let your gait follow a normal pattern relative to uphill’s short stride. If you choose the same distance as you would a steeper hill, you can develop your maximal running speed as you can run faster, with a more natural stride as well.

It’s not a matter of which is better, it’s more about what you want to improve.

  • Steeper = muscle power
  • Gentler = maximal speed

Does Hill Length Make a Difference?:

Are longer hills better? Are shorter hills better?

We can categorize the length of the hills not by distance, but by how long we take to travel across. If the hill takes less than a minute to climb/descend, it’s considered a short hill. Above that, it’s long.

Well when you think about it, imagine how much extra effort you would have to do to cross a longer distance, especially at an incline, compared to a shorter distance. In fast running, as hill sessions are to be, a three minute interval (the recommended interval length for hill repetitions) would lead to a very exhausted runner. Whereas the same runner would find the shorter distance to be easier – but wait, we forgot one factor.

Speed!

The velocity at which you travel is very important, and this is where targeting can come into play, once again. Short hills mean that you can run at a faster speed to compensate for effort. Longer hills require slower running, otherwise you will fail before you reach the end. When targeting VO2 max and blood lactate, go with the shorter intervals.

A study (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 42 (5), p. 140) has shown that longer hills (192 second intervals)  actually require 10% more metabolic cost than short hills, where the workouts are compared with equal volume of running time. This means that heart rates and oxygen consumption were higher, on average, than in shorter hills. For endurance athletes, this could really help.

In essence, longer hill intervals of 180 seconds can improve your aerobic ability better than shorter intervals. This is great for improving fatigue resistance as well. On the other hand, shorter intervals (<60 seconds) are better for developing pure power and speed. 

Putting Hill Training into a Plan:

By now you’re probably wondering: “Well how do I put hills into my training plan?”

That’s obviously a very important question – throwing them in willy nilly isn’t always the best idea. Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Develop an aerobic base to create your foundation.
  2. Then sprinkle in speed workouts.
  3. Finally, dash in some hill workouts.

“What workouts should I use?” As much of a variety as you can before you start focusing. You want to get your body exploring and learning how to run up various different hills: short, steep hill; long, gentle hills; short, gentle hills; you name it. This will prepare you for a race, as every hill is different. One or two hill workouts a week is plenty. Fine tuning becomes available once you are used to all of the different types of hills.

Scenarios:

Well now we need some examples, otherwise this wouldn’t be a hill training guide – this would just be spewing random information!

If you have the speed on level terrain, but suffer dramatically when climbing up a hill, then go for ways to develop your muscle power. You want to be able to bound up the hill like a graceful bunny. For this, use short hill intervals that have a harsh incline; push with power and focus on activating and working all of your muscles. Sprinkle a couple downhill intervals (not too fast!) as well to refine your quads. This will bring your drive.

On the other hand, if you have the power to climb up a hill but lack the speed and lungs you need, try building up to speedy downhills by running long uphills for 180 seconds every interval. This will push you aerobically, building up your fatigue resistance. More fatigue resistance = more pace holding ability. With that, you can also add gradual downhills to help push your pace faster, creating a fatigue resistant, fast runner.

For the safest training, we recommend that you jog afterward for a rest rather than switch directly back to walking. This stresses the body the least as it doesn’t have to transition so greatly, and also builds up endurance faster!

Make use of both types of hill running. Downhill running is great for the quads while uphill running is amazing for the calves. You need both muscles to function as an excellent runner.

Visual Guide:

A diagram showing where to put hill training into a running plan.

This diagram shows the general stages of a training plan and when you should introduce hills.

This first part of your training plan should always build up a base volume. Then, you want to bring in running-specific strength exercises. These could be squats, dead-lifts, plyometrics, or anything else you use to build muscle in your legs. Fartleks and other speed workouts count, so long as you are developing power. This prepares you for hill training, as it will be tough on the body.

Once you have that done, you can implement hills and continue along with your training plan. Hill training is a great base to build before yo start the final segment of your training, which includes a heavy amount of speed work. The strength that is gained purely from running hills sets you up perfectly for explosive and high-speed training. Sprinters take note! (Although you don’t have to be a sprinter to get a lot of benefit from high-speed interval training.)

Hills For Strength Training:

Wait, there’s even more!

Strength training using hill sprints is quite possible. This is great for bodybuilders and those looking to gain runner-specific strength conditioning. The key difference between building muscle in the gym and building muscle with running is that the former targets specific muscle groups while the latter forces them into unison. What this means is that by changing some of your “leg days” to hill sprints, you can work on the muscles together as a whole and target the entirety of your legs.

The hamstrings will get great benefit from both uphill and downhill running, though more benefit will come from downhill running as you will have a longer stride. (This causes your hamstrings to have to contract a further distance with each step, leading to more work.) The quadriceps grow from downhill intervals because of their braking power. (Just don’t brake too much!) Uphill running strengthens the calves, one of the hardest muscle groups to grow, since you’re forced up onto the balls of your feet.

What makes hill running so great for bodybuilders is that it targets all of the muscles in one session, meaning you spend less time to get the same work out of it. Hill sprints complement weight training quite well.

Hill Training Benefits:

Hills are perfect to build up leg power, speed, and VO2 max fast – perfect for athletes and bodybuilders. There are so many ways to train with a hill, and each is unique which brings its own rewards. The general consensus is that they bring huge benefits.

Here are all of the benefits:

  • Strengthens the fast-twitch and intermediate leg muscles; the quads and calves.
  • Improves stability.
  • Increases max running speed.
  • Amps up endurance and lactate-threshold velocity.
  • Improves running form and running economy.
  • Increases the heart’s stroke volume.
  • Improves aerobic and anaerobic efficiency.
  • Increases mental strength.
  • Improves VO2 max and vVO2 max.
  • Increases fatigue resistance.

Just by training on hills you can improve tremendously. Where others will struggle to push up an incline, you will find it to be a piece of cake. Seriously, this is no exaggeration. Your legs will become strong and instead of your legs going out first, your lungs will. In short, hill repeats are tiring, but they are a great way to build your speed and strength. They develop your stride and help you deliver more power with each step.

Do you want to run fast? Try hill training.

Summary Infographic:

An infographic that summarizes everything you need to know about hill training.


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