In the early phases of a training program, many runners regularly do hill repeats as a way to work on lower-leg strength, improve power and reinforce the basic tenets of good running mechanics. Later in the training cycle, however, hill workouts tend to get replaced by a weekly interval session (or two) in order to improve speed, enhance efficiency and dial in race pace. And while there’s nothing wrong with transitioning to more frequent interval work leading up to race day, it’s always surprised me that many coaches and athletes seem to forget about hill workouts altogether once they get into the meat of the training cycle.
One of my favorite early-to-mid-season workouts I assign my athletes interrupts a traditional interval workout with a set (or sets) of hill repeats. The purpose of doing so is to introduce a new training stimulus that will challenge the musculoskeletal system in addition to the aerobic system. Also, keeping some hill work in the weekly rotation acts as a means of muscular support during a period that’s usually heavily focused on improving specific fitness for a goal race.
So how long should your hill repeats sandwiched into the middle of an interval workout be? It depends on what you’re trying to achieve with them. For emphasizing pure power and maximum muscle-fiber recruitment, max-intensity sprints in the range of 10-12 seconds with full recovery between repeats will do the trick, while longer hill repeats in the range of 30-90 seconds will help you to develop a greater level of fatigue resistance in your legs.
Here are three examples of classic short, medium and long interval workouts, along with different options for effectively interrupting them with an incline.
Option 1: Short Intervals
Typical Workout: 12 x 400m at 5k race pace (or slightly faster) with 60-90 seconds recovery between repetitions
Interruption Option: 2 sets of 4-5 x 400m at 5k race pace (0r slightly faster) with 60-90 seconds recovery between repetitions. Follow each set of flat 400m repeats with 2 x 60-second hill repeats on a moderately steep grade at the same effort. Recover from each repeat by jogging back down to the bottom of the hill. The added element of the incline stimulates promotes muscular gains you don’t get from running fast on flat ground.
Option 2: Medium Intervals
Typical Workout: 5 x 6 minutes at 10k race effort with 3-minute recovery jog between repetitions
Interruption Option: Use the base of a moderately steep hill as the starting point for your intervals. Begin your 6-minute reps at the base of a hill, running away from it on a flat stretch of ground for 3 minutes at 10k race effort before turning around and returning at the same pace. Take 2-3 minutes of walking/jogging recovery after each flat 6-minute rep, then charge up the hill for 30 seconds at a hard effort that’s 10-15% short of all-out. Focus on driving your arms, getting up on your toes and charging up the hill with strong form. After competing the 30-second uphill effort, take 2-3 minutes of recovery and repeat the sequence four more times.
Option 3: Long Intervals
Typical Workout: 3-4 x 2 miles at half-marathon race pace with a 3-minute recovery jog between repetitions
Interruption Option: Take a 2:30 recovery after each 2-mile repetition and then perform 2 x 10-second hill sprints at max effort. Recover fully with 1:30 to 2:00 of walking/light jogging after each hill sprint before beginning the next 2-mile/2 x 10-second hill sprint sequence. The short, but intense uphill efforts recruit a greater number of muscle fibers, which will rapidly increase the muscular fatigue in your legs, making each subsequent 2-mile effort that much more of a challenge. At the end of the session, you’ll have gotten in 8 miles of running at goal half-marathon race pace, 80 seconds worth of high-intensity hill work and a toasted set of legs. This is a big workout — be sure to recover well in the days that follow!