If you’re looking for an effective training strategy to incorporate into your running routine, look no further than hill repeats.
Hill repeats involve running up a hill multiple times at a hard pace. You might sprint up the hill — if it’s short enough — or practice sustaining your goal race pace on a long, gradual hill. In any case, regular hill workouts can help you become a better, stronger runner.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, running economy refers to the energy demand of running at any given speed, and is typically measured by the amount of oxygen used, according to a review in Sports Medicine. The better your running economy, the more efficiently you’re able to run, and the less energy you’ll need to run at a given pace. In fact, if you pit two runners with similar experience and VO2 max levels against one another, the one with better running economy will likely win, according to the same review.
In other words: Improving your running economy is a great way to improve your running performance.
Hill repeats are one strategy you can use to boost your running economy. “Hills can help improve biomechanics and running form, which directly help running economy,” says Nicole Gainacopulos, certified strength and conditioning specialist, running coach and owner of Momentum of Milwaukee.
Because it takes greater effort to run uphill — especially at a fast pace — than to run on flat ground, you’ll likely find yourself paying closer attention to what your body is doing, and make necessary tweaks to make that uphill effort feel easier.
“It’s almost impossible to run with poor form uphill, because you can’t really overstride,” says Jenni Nettik, a running coach and owner of Colorado-based Mercuria Running. “When you’re going uphill, your feet are going to land near you just because of the angle, so it’s a really good way to practice taking quick steps.”
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As you continue practicing and honing your form when running hills, you’ll develop greater efficiency and body awareness that translates to running on flat terrain.
Aerobic capacity (also known as VO2 max or maximal oxygen uptake) refers to the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise. If you can increase your VO2 max, you’ll also increase the amount of work your body is capable of doing.
To boost VO2 max, you need to run at intensities that require tons of oxygen. Uphill running is a surefire way to accomplish this.
In fact, middle- and long-distance runners who performed two hill workouts per week in addition to regular endurance training saw significant improvements in VO2 max by the end of 12 weeks, according to research published in the November 2017 issue of the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. Meanwhile, runners who only completed endurance workouts (no hills) experienced no change in VO2 max.
“Aerobic capacity needed is much greater during uphill [running], so it’s very important to incorporate hills into your training to receive the endurance benefits,” Gainacopulos says.
Conquering a hill — especially a steep and/or long hill — brings instant confidence, which can be particularly helpful for any runner who’s training for a race. “There are few races that don’t have any hills,” Gainacopulos says, and even a relatively flat race course is sure to have a hill here and there. “Knowing how to navigate through these and feel strong will add confidence and strong racing mentality.”
Not to mention, you’ll feel grateful for the flat and downhill portions of the race: “If you can be strong on the hills, then the rest of the race is going to feel easy,” Nettik says. The same applies to your training runs.
Because you have to resist the downward pull of gravity, hill repeats act as a great strength exercise for your legs. In fact, even the downhill portion of a hill repeat works your legs, as you have to actively control your landing to avoid tumbling forward.
When running uphill, the focus is largely on your glutes, hamstrings and calves, whereas the downhill portion primarily targets your quads. Over time, this increased strength helps improve your running performance: “With more strength, you will be able to go faster with less effort,” Gainacopulos says.
If all you do is jog or run the same neighborhood loop, or you find yourself repeating the same workouts week after week, a hill workout can help freshen things up. By adding variety to your training, you can stave off boredom and keep your body guessing. “Hill repeats can be a great change of pace and provide a physical and mental challenge to spice up your training,” Gainacopulos says.
There are a few things to keep in mind when running hills. Approach them intelligently to maximize benefits and enjoyment.
First, try to keep your stride short and quick on the uphill portion, Gainacopulos says. Spending less time on the ground and utilizing your body’s forward momentum will be more efficient than plodding along with giant steps.
Second, tweak your pace accordingly. You’ll likely find you can’t run as quickly during the uphills as you can during flat portions, but this is completely normal. Don’t get discouraged if you have to slow your pace.
Also, resist the urge to do hill repeats every training session, thinking that if a little is good, more must be better. Start by adding repeats into your training cycle once every other week, and bump it up to once per week when you feel ready. “No need to do them more [than that], as your body needs time to recover,” Gainacopulos says.
Remember to take care on the downhill portion to avoid excessive soreness and injury: “Running downhill will feel initially easier, since gravity is doing some of the work to move your body forward, but the downside is you have to absorb significantly more shock on impact,” Gainacopulos says. If you attack the downhills too intensely, you may find it painful to walk down stairs the next day. Continue running (or walking) tall, and resist the urge to let gravity do all the work.
Finally, hold off on hill repeats if you have any lower leg injuries or Achilles pain, as running on an incline may worsen your symptoms, Nettik says.
If you’re ready to try hill repeats, start with this simple routine: Find a hill that takes roughly 30–60 seconds to run up. Then, run or sprint up the hill a total of three times, aiming to maintain or beat your previous time. Walk or jog to the bottom of the hill after each repeat. Wait at the bottom of the hill until you’re fully recovered before performing the next repeat.