Be a Friend with Hills


There are a number of aspects of training that get dropped by the wayside for any number of reasons. Either there aren’t enough hours in the day, we just don’t want to do it or we don’t understand why it’s so important. Hill intervals are one of those things. The reason why you’re not doing them however is for you to decide, but let me tell you that you should be hitting the hills each week.
Before you go and find the steepest and longest hill in town let me throw out a word of warning: hill intervals should not be attempted by those who are still building their running base. The more intense the workout, the more risk you are of walking away with an injury that will put you on the side lines for weeks if not months. With that said, this doesn’t mean that hill work can’t benefit you as well. More on that below.

Warm Up

Hill intervals should always be preceded by a quality warm up. Get your heart rate up by running a few miles at an easy conversational pace on relatively flat terrain. During the last half mile include some short 30 sec. strides to open up your stride length. Keep in mind that the warm up is not your workout. With everyone pressed for time it’s tempting to “warm up” as fast as you can so that you can get the hill repeats in, get home, shower and get to work. Don’t rush the warm up!

Which Hill Is The Right Hill?

This partially has to do with your fitness level and what it is that you’re trying to accomplish with the workout. Looking for power? Then choose a hill that is short but has some good steepness to it. Wanting stamina? Then find a moderate grade hill that has some length.

I’m racing a flat course, why should I do hill intervals?

Hill training does far more than just mentally and physically prepare you for a hilly race. By doing hill intervals you’re basically doing resistance weight training but without going to the gym. The muscles in your hips, upper leg and knees are forced to work together to fight against gravity and make a neuromuscular connection between those muscles. The muscles groups that you use for sprinting are basically the same groups that you’ll use on hills which will make you faster on that flat course race. Also, while hill intervals can cause injury if they’re performed incorrectly, e.g. to early for a beginner, or at too high an intensity, running hills can also be solution to not getting injured. By running hills you’re strengthening muscles around joints that are imperative to your everyday running. By building these specific muscles you’re giving support to tendons and ligaments in those joints that are often prone to injury.


There are many different ways to go about hill workouts depending on what your goal is. Here are just a few.

  • Bounds – Bounding up a hill is really the opposite of what you want to do on race day but during training it can be a great way to build power in your glutes and quads by taking long powerful strides for 50 to 75 meters. Recovery should be a slow walk back down to your original starting point. 4-8 of these once a week should be plenty
  • Strides – As mentioned above, the last thing that you want to during a race is take long strides up a steep hill. You’ll burn your legs out and hobble for the next few miles until you recover from that effort. The number of steps that you should be taking up a hill has a lot to do with your leg length and your height. Find a cadence that feels right to you and your body make up. Just know that each step should be short, fast and efficient.
  • Fartleks – This is one of my favorite workouts because I enjoy intensity workouts and what’s more intense than hill fartleks? These work the same as fartleks on flat ground. While maintaining good hill running form (short steps, slight forward lean and pumping arms), push hard up the hill. For the recovery you can either jog at an easy pace back down or even walk. These are hard efforts so they should only be done once a week.
  • Walking – Yes, walking. Still building your running base is not reason to avoid hills. Walking up an incline can still give you that satisfying burn in your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles and raise your heart rate all while avoiding the pounding and muscle stress that your body will take during running hill workouts.

There’s no reason to be afraid of hills on race day. If you’ve been doing hill workouts then you can approach with confidence what most racers are dreading. Remember that just like riding a bike, your run stride and cadence have different gears that you should utilize. If you’re climbing a steep hill on your bike you shift into “granny gear” and up your cadence. Your run stride has that same gear so use it while tackling your next hill.

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