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Not Your Average Hill Workout: Mix Up Your Speed and Bust Up the Boredom

Hill workouts are a great way to build speed and endurance, but they can be tough. Here's one that's fun.

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If you’re looking for speed-oriented hill running workout that isn’t simply a bunch of reps up and down the same bit of road or trail, over and over again, this is the one. It’s my group’s favorite that I  call the hill cone drill. The basic format is to find a suitably long hill that’s not ridiculously steep. The one I use averages about a 5 percent grade. Such a hill will rise about 60 feet in a quarter mile according to your GPS watch, Strava, or whatever other app you use to measure such things. Seventy-five feet is fine, and 50 feet is OK. Outside that range you may find it either steeper than optimum or too gentle—but if you can’t find the ideal grade, you have to work with what you’ve got.

Hill Cone Drill Running Workout

Mark a starting line at the base of the hill, then place markers at 100 meters, 200 meters, 300 meters, and 400 meters. I use cones, but sticks, mailboxes, telephone poles, or other landmarks work just as well. Distances don’t need to be precise.

Begin by running hard to the first cone: not flat-out, because this isn’t a short workout, but at least at mile-race effort.

Recover back to the start. Slowly. This is a strength, form, and power-developing workout, not an aerobic effort, so you need to be well-enough recovered by the time you get back to the start to be able to go hard again. Also, there’s no sense pounding your knees on the descent.

Now, run hard to the second cone. Recover back to the start. Run hard to the third cone, again recover back to the start, and run hard to the fourth cone.

That’s a set. The recovery between sets is simply the jog back from the fourth cone to the start. If you have the distance between cones more-or-less correct, the total on your GPS watch at this point should be about 2,000 meters, counting recoveries.

Total volume depends on your weekly running volume. I put a hard limit at 4 sets for high-volume runners, 3 sets for those running less than 45 miles a week. But an even better way is to run it by time, especially if you are in a group. That way, even if you get spread out, you can regroup and the end and cool down together. Thirty-two to 36 minutes is probably about right, with the caveat that you can’t turn it into a race to see how much you can do in that length of time. (And, if you hit the prescribed 3-4 set max, you’re done.)

RELATED: 8 of the Hardest Empty-the-Tank Hill Workouts

When to Do It

This is a workout you can do occasionally throughout your training cycle. It’s a great substitute for fast 200s, 300s, or 400s on the track.

“I like it because running uphill is based on effort, rather than a particular pace,” says Jen Seibel, a masters runner from West Linn, Oregon, who uses the workout periodically as an alternative to the track. “You can push really hard for short stints,” she adds, “but the sets are mentally manageable because the distances are relatively short.”

It’s also good for training for hilly races, or for cross-country, where power on hills is useful. Or for shorter races, such as 5K, 3K, or the mile, again, where power is useful.

But it’s also a good one, I’ve found, for hot days, when the track is an oven that deters serious speed work. Hills are often in areas with a lot of trees. That means not only shade, but cooler air due to the cooling effect of the moisture evaporating though all those leaves, allowing you to do this workout when the track is simply too hot for comfort. Not that this is going to be an issue at this time of year, but it’s worth remembering next summer.

Advanced Versions

There are three ways to make this hill running workout more technical (and a bit tougher), but don’t do them until you’re comfortable with the basic version.

One is to make the last rep in each set a bit more than 400 meters. I often make the first two slightly short, then stretch the last one to about 450 meters. The difference is enough to notice.

Another (which can be combined with the first) is to place your cones so that the final rep in each set goes about 50 meters beyond the steepest part of the hill. On the hill I use, that’s still uphill, but at a much gentler grade. What I want people to do is to feel themselves pick up speed as the grade flattens, rather than just trying to hang on until the end. This is an extremely useful racing skill.

Finally, there’s nothing that says you need to use these specific distance intervals. I once suggested that Valerie Weilert, a high-volume miler and 5K runner who works as a shoe designer for Hoka One One, break her neighborhood hill into 50-meter segments and run them as a pyramid: 100 meters, 150 meters, 200 meters, 250 meters, 300 meters, 350 meters, 2-4 x 400 meters, 350 meters, 300 meters, 250 meters, 150 meters, 100 meters.

She loved it. “What I most enjoy[ed] is how it nicely mimics a race effort,” she says. And, she says, “once the top of the pyramid is reached, it’s a great opportunity to practice keeping those second efforts as fast as the first time while managing fatigue to finish your strongest.”