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Here’s How Running Hills Make You Faster, According to Science

Sure, flat ground feels easier. But you aren't helping your running. Here's more proof that you should be doing hill repeats.

While hill running has been a staple on the workout rotation for runners for decades, there actually hasn’t been much academic research on the training practice until relatively recently. A slew of new research over the last few years, however, has proven that, yes, hills really are worth the burn.

Improvements in VO2 Max, Heart Rate, and Race Performance 

In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications,  a team of Ethiopian researchers investigated the effect of hill training on the performance and physiological fitness markers of competitive club-level middle and long distance runners who competed between 800m and 10,000m.

In the study, 32 athletes were divided randomly into a control group and experimental group. The control group was only given endurance training, while the experimental group was trained on both endurance and two sessions of hill workouts per week for 12 weeks. The subjects were evaluated as being similar in all fitness aspects being measured (VO2 max scores, resting heart rate, speed endurance, and race times) prior to the experiment. At week 6 and 12, the group that was trained on hills showed significant improvement in their VO2 max, resting heart rate, and speed endurance, while the control group did not.

“A general strength orientated hill training program is an appropriate and efficient method for improving both strength and speed endurance ability in distance runners,” wrote the authors. “To enhance the performance of middle and long distance events athletes, the coaches have to include hill training workouts in their training plan.” The study also found that the improvements in speed endurance were attained without increasing injury risk.

Another study, published in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in 2013, had a group of runners perform six weeks of high-intensity uphill running intervals. They discovered that not only were the athletes’ running economy (energy expenditure) enhanced, but they were also 2 percent faster, on average, in 5K time-trial performances. “Runners can assume that any form of high-intensity uphill interval training will benefit 5-km time-trial performance,” concluded the authors.

More recent research conducted in 2018 has suggested that uphill sprint training at a 10 percent incline greatly enhances aerobic metabolic and cardiovascular response, which lead to physiological changes that the authors opined may have a correlation with muscular endurance. Meaning you can go at your max speed for longer.

How Hills Enhance Training

USATF certified coach Tom Schwartz, coach of the Tinman Elite racing team, explains that hill training is beneficial because, when going uphill, you have more engagement of motor units—the bundles of muscle fibers that ignite while running. This enhances muscular strength and endurance. You also likely engage a portion of your core more when running uphill because every time you push your legs harder into the ground, your core must stabilize to compensate for the tilt.

Schwartz adds that pushing yourself up a hill helps you to produce more power as opposed to sprinting on flat surfaces. Running fast on a track requires more than just strength: form matters—it’s why world class sprinters spend so much time perfecting drills. It’s hard to be coordinated when you’re running at a high speed, but, since you aren’t running as fast up a hill, Schwartz explains, “You don’t need to have as much coordination, and therefore you can generate more power.”  So though you may not have as much “form skill” as a sprinter, you can generate a similar amount of force when pushing yourself up a hill.

As a bonus, Schwartz notes that there is less of a risk of injury when doing high intensity hill repeats than when doing the same repeats of a flat surface because your body takes less of a beating when going uphill.

“You get more injuries when you’re running at a high effort doing repeat 200s on the track than you would going up hill,” he says. “[Hills are] an awesome way to build muscle strength and power, without pounding your body.”

Because what matters is time exposed to the bioenergetic stimulus of hill training, Schwartz typically prescribes repetitions based on time rather than distance.

Your 6-Week Hill Running Training Plan

According to the research, just six weeks of hill repeat sessions can make a significant difference in running performance. Here is a sample workout progression that can be done on a treadmill or outside once per week. Don’t worry too much about calculating the gradient if you’re not using a treadmill, eyeball a hill with a slight slope for the first few weeks and move over to a relatively steeper hill somewhere between weeks 4 and 6.

Begin the repeats at the effort of a 5K tempo run, increasing the intensity on each next rep to end at a 5K race effort by the last hill if you’re feeling good. (Go easier than you think you need to on the first rep!) Remember to start with a very easy warm-up of 10–15 minutes.

Week 1

Jog 10–15 minutes to warm-up.

Find a hill with a 4% grade and do 4–5 x 60-second repeats, jog or walk down taking a 2 minute recovery between each interval. (Or however long you need.)

Jog a 10–20 minute cool-down.

 

Week 2

Jog 10–15 minutes to warm-up.

Do 5–6 x 60-second repeats on a 4% grade hill, taking a 2 minute jog recovery between each.

Jog a 10–20 minute cool-down.

 

Week 3

Jog 10–15 minutes to warm-up.

4–6 x 90-second repeats on a 4–5% grade hill, taking a 2–3 minute jog recovery between each.

Jog a 10–20 minute cool-down.

 

Week 4

Jog 10–15 minutes to warm-up.

4–6 x 2 minute repeats on a 5% grade hill, taking a 3 minute jogging recovery between each. (Or, however long it takes you to fully recover before the next rep.)

Jog a 10–20 minute cool-down.

 

Week 5

Jog 10–15 minutes to warm-up.

6–8 x 2 minute repeats on a 5–6% grade hill, jogging a full recovery between each.

Jog a 10–20 minute cool-down.

 

Week 6

Jog 10–15 minutes to warm-up.

8–10 x  2–3 minute repeats on a 5–6% grade hill, taking a full jogging recovery between each.

Jog a 10–20 minute cool-down.

 

From: Podium Runner