Hill workouts are mirrors: They reflect back what you see in yourself. Each hill interval is slower than flat running. They are not comfortable, at least not in the same way that drinking a cup of hot cocoa under a weighted blanket is comfortable. It is a series of compromises layered on top of one another: speed versus pain, grit versus caution. You give so much and get back so little: I went on this hill workout journey and all I got was this stupid taste of pennies in my mouth.
The cool thing I have seen in training logs is that athletes usually report back something about their soul disguised as notes on a workout. When they have practiced that all-caps BELIEF over months and years, they’ll describe how it was tough but they conquered it. Rocked that crap. Crushed it. Little-known fact: Britney wrote the song “Work B#tch” about them.
But when that belief is fraying at the edges, the reports are often different. It was hard, and the performance was weak. Meh. Their internal monologue is singing “cause you had a bad day” on repeat like it’s 2005 all over again.
That’s the paradox of giving your all and in return just getting aching legs and the taste of bile. Going hard but going relatively slowly is a test of spirit as much as it’s a test of fitness.
And that’s just one of many reasons I love hill workouts.
They’re a chance to hone that self-belief muscle, practicing the art of loving your boss self unconditionally. They also have tons of physical benefits, as outlined in this more comprehensive article from last year. A 2017 review in the journal Sports Medicine described how uphill running can involve increased internal mechanical work, often meaning greater muscular activity than the same effort on flat ground. That review article and some of the studies it cites describe how athletes may increase output on hill efforts.
And even if they don’t, a 2005 study in the Journal of Biomechanics found that uphill running decreased impact forces while increasing parallel propulsive peaks by 75 percent. In other words, there is likely less injury risk for the same workload, which is especially important for aging or injury-prone athletes. Finally, a 2019 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology described how running economy is correlated on uphill ground and level ground, even though the biomechanics are different. So uphill gains likely feed back into faster running on all grades as long as there’s enough work on both ups and flats. (“Enough” is going a lot of legwork in that sentence, so just make sure you don’t run hills and vert at the expense of all else.)
That fitness stimulus is likely related to the increase in muscular activity and the change of recruitment patterns. As the muscles are under increased load, they fatigue rapidly. But that’s a good thing, because the fatigue leads to muscular endurance adaptations in a well-rounded training plan. As muscular endurance goes up, the aerobic and cardiovascular systems play catch-up to provide oxygen to muscles that are putting out more work. Those aerobic adaptations increase muscular output more, which can lead to more aerobic development.
Mix in just enough flat running for neuromuscular and biomechanical adaptations to fast paces (which varies on the athlete and their goals), and it’s a chain reaction of awesomeness. It’s like when one person starts dancing at a wedding, then another starts dancing, and another, just in your cells.
Over time, I have placed a much greater emphasis on hill workouts for all athletes, from beginners to pros. Some of that is the psychological element. I am not sure if hill beasts become life beasts, or life beasts become hill beasts, all I know is that people that conquer hills are all-around beasts and I don’t want to mess around with it by trying to tease out correlation and causation.
But mainly I think the long-term growth I see in athletes that do many hill workouts is physical. The muscular and aerobic demands are high, but usually without the annoying soreness or niggles that can come from a pure focus on flat and fast workouts. The general approach my wife Megan and I use is to start a training cycle by getting strong on the hills (with a heavy dose of hill strides) to develop the musculoskeletal and aerobic systems.
The general approach my wife Megan and I use is to start a training cycle by getting strong on the hills (with a heavy dose of hill strides) to develop the musculoskeletal and aerobic systems.
Next, we introduce flatter speed to adapt the neuromuscular and biomechanical systems to faster paces—road racers may spend most of a training cycle with this focus. For trail racers, many will spend a lot of time subsequently reinforcing the hill stimulus to keep getting stronger. And faster-twitch athletes will usually have more of a focus on hill intervals independent of their goals, since they may not respond as well to excessively fast workouts.
Going through training logs, there are eight different hill workouts that athletes we coach do often. You’ll notice that most of the hill intervals are not too long. That is because the muscular demand can lead to some athletes greatly decreasing output with longer repeats, similar to how you do a certain number of push-ups, then lose all ability to do more push-ups.
You can do one or two workouts a week, and make sure you do 15 to 30 minutes of easy warm-up and cool-down running too. Alright, let’s do this!
The Shark Teeth
- 8 x 1 minute steeper hills moderately hard with 2 minutes easy/moderate recovery
This is a good workout when you’re early in a training cycle, or have some residual fatigue built up later in training. The steeper hills call on every muscle fiber, while the easy/moderate float recovery works lactate clearance. In 24 minutes, you can get a major stimulus with less fatigue the next day.
The T. Rex
- 6 x 2 minute hills moderately hard with run down recovery after each, followed by steady running on tired legs
Two-minute hills allow you to push without having to worry about hitting the wall too much. Many athletes say that the steady running after the hills can counter-intuitively feel easier, which may be related to cool processes like the central governor. Or it could be more simple, your brain deciding that anything is better than hill intervals. This workout is great for any part of the training cycle, since the steady running provides an endurance stimulus on tired legs. It’s called The T. Rex because it’s vicious and has a long tail.
- 5 x 3 minute hills moderately hard with run down recovery after each
If I could only give one shorter workout for the rest of my coaching life, it would be this one. Almost every athlete we coach has seen it many times over, a perfect balance of difficulty, power demand, and aerobic stress. Your ticket to an existential crisis in 30 minutes or less! Get through it, and you come out resilient and faster.
The Fast and the Spurious
- 1/2/3/2/1 minute hills moderately hard to hard with run down recovery, followed by 4 x 1 minute faster on flatter ground
A classic combo workout combining the normal muscular demands of a hill workout followed by the speed demand of flatter running. It’s great to do as a bridge to flatter workouts, or you can add combo elements like 1 minute intervals at the end of any hill workout.
The Quad Blaster
- 5/4/3/2/1 minute hills moderately hard with run down easy/moderate recovery, followed by 4 x 30 second steep hills hard
Nice Legs Finish Blasted
- 4 x 2 minute hills moderately hard with run down recovery, 4 x 1 minute hills hard with run down recovery, 4 x 30 second steep hills all out
These two workouts are purely designed to ask everything of your muscles, making them perfect mid-cycle stimuli to kick up fitness. At the end of the 30-second intervals, you’ll likely feel like you are running in radioactive sludge. That’s a good thing. Right?
- 15-30 minute hill moderate to mod/hard, 5 minutes easy, 6 x 1 min hill hard with run down recovery
Longer hill tempos are a staple of our athletes’ training plans, particular in the context of long runs. Twenty minutes is a sweet spot where you can push lactate threshold without deciding to quit running (or going too hard for optimal adaptations). Tag on some hard hills to get the higher output that is difficult on tempos, plus a lactate clearance stress. Do hill tempos mid-training cycle and later, after you have developed your running economy enough to be efficient. Adaptations are optimized if you listen to “Tempo” by Lizzo.
The Hill Beast
- 10/8/6/4/2 minute hills moderately hard with run down recovery after each
The Hill Beast is reserved for the most hardy souls, like multiple-time Golden Trail Finalist Meg Mackenzie, who is the original hill beast the workout is named for. It’s saved for 10 to 20 days before steep trail and skyracing. The goal? Survive. Do that, and you’ll find the big hill workout secret.
After you finish, you aren’t just a bit of a different athlete. You’re a bit of a different person.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.
From Trail Runner