There is no doubt that if a runner regularly hits the hills, they get stronger, more powerful, and ultimately faster. I am all about speed! However, you should vary the structure of your hill program throughout the season.
Since hill work is stressful, adaptation, progression, and periodization are of the utmost importance. A healthy dose of hill running can be a valuable component of your weekly training program.
Outdoor Versus Indoor
The answer to the age-old question of outdoor hill training or treadmill hills is that they both have their place in a good running plan.
The advantage of running on a treadmill is that you can dial in your workout specifications precisely, there is reduced impact, and you can focus on your running form. If you are trying to keep your heart rate down during base training, you simply select a speed that keeps your heart rate in your desired zone.
Treadmill hill workouts allow you to adjust the pace and incline to create just the right amount of stress for your workout. It may be hard to find a very long hill with a steady incline in your area, but the treadmill can create the terrain you need.
It is important to not start off your hill program with too steep of an incline, as your body may not be ready for it. With the treadmill, you can record and progress the incline slightly each week. The resistance on a treadmill remains constant, which is important for building muscular endurance.
Hill Training Progressions
An important component of the base period is training your aerobic energy system. This means sustaining lower intensities. Hills will obviously drive your heart rate up but that does not mean you should eliminate hill work during base season.
In fact, this is the best time to build sport-specific strength. As your season progresses, intensity and specificity should follow along.
The following workouts are in order of progression:
Walk to run faster? Don’t doubt it. Walking fast on a steep incline can get your heart rate up almost as much as a slow run and there is less impact and eccentric load. It is a great way to strengthen the glut, hamstrings, and calf muscles for tougher work to come.
Hill walking can be performed during the transition phase and early base training. Without the high impact of running, a steeper incline can be used. I prescribe this to all my athletes no matter how seasoned.
Base/Endurance Hill Intervals
This workout has a bit more structure. I recommend starting out at a base aerobic level and progressing to a higher aerobic intensity towards the end of your base and into the meat of your training.
Hill running intervals of 5-20 minutes with 5-10 minutes of recovery between efforts, up to two times per week, will build muscular endurance. Pace and/or incline must be adjusted to keep your heart rate in the right zone.
Although you will run at a slow pace, you will feel fatigue accumulate over time. This is a good workout for the treadmill but it can definitely be performed outdoors, with a little planning.
Steady Hill Intervals
For these intervals, intensity is increased to the top of, or slightly over, your aerobic zone and you will need to hold a more narrow range in the zone. Because this workout is more exact, it again may be easier to perform on the treadmill.
Start with intervals of 5-20 minutes with 5-10 minutes of recovery between efforts, up to two times per week.
This is one of my favorite workouts to prescribe. It is a good introduction to higher intensity training to come. On a hilly course, you will push hard on the uphill sections and run a relaxed pace on the downhill.
This is not a very structured workout and is best performed outdoors. Fartlek hills build strength, power, and aerobic capacity if performed at a high intensity. As you progress with fartlek hills you can add in more intensity. Adding a 5-10 second sprint to the top of a hill is a good example.
Bounds utilize a springing motion, with plenty of power at takeoff. Picture leaping from point-to-point using a long stride as you climb a hill. You want to work on producing quick, explosive power of 50-75 meters.
Recovery is a slow walk back down the hill. Usually, 4-8 of these will be enough. Perform this workout no more than once per week.
Now we’re talking! Love/hate this workout. This is hill speed work with no heart rate prescribed so leave the HRM at home. On a hill of approximately 100 meters, start off at a moderate pace and build to a sprint.
In the last 10 seconds, sprint as hard as you can to the top of the hill. I prescribe this work out no more than two times per month in the race preparation period. I may prescribe several sets of 3-4 hill sprints.
Recovery between sets is 10-15 minutes of easy running. Recovery between efforts is a slow walk back down the hill. You may also perform hill sprints on a trail or soft surface to promote lower leg strength.
These are a technique drill. Many runners slow their stride rate and lengthen their stride as they attempt to power up a hill. The exact opposite should take place. Count your strides going uphill.
Your stride rate should be around 30 right foot strides in 20 seconds. Work on a short, fast, efficient uphill stride and use your arms to create lift. You should perform these in all periods of the season.
Hills Will Benefit You
Remember that hill work is a combination of strength and power training and you must let your body acclimate gradually and recover in between workouts. If you experience any calf or Achilles area pain, stop immediately and take a few days off.
Do your self-care to manage the pain and recover quickly. Do not resume training until you are pain-free. In between your hill training workouts on the treadmill do not run on an incline for your longer runs as it can increase your injury risk.
Well-planned hill work will help prevent injury and strengthen your tendons, joints, and ligaments, but only if the stress load is not too much too soon. Overall fitness cannot be rushed and hill work is no exception.