Training for a hilly race: When and How to Use Hills in your Training

One of the hardest parts about constructing a great training plan is trying to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. For each week or training cycle, we have a myriad of possible workouts to choose from – threshold runs, VO2 max, speed work, hills and slight variations of all of these training elements. It can seem daunting to understand how each type of workout fits into a plan and how it helps you take a step towards your goal – running faster on race day.

Particularly, many runners we work with at RunnersConnect struggle with how to incorporate hill work into their training if their goal race is on a hilly course. It stands to reason that if you’re racing on a hilly course you need to work in hill repeats to your training. But, do hill repeats actually make you a better hill runner?

Not as much as you may think.

However, while hill repeats alone might not be race specific, I do believe there is a beneficial way to incorporate hills into training. In this article, I’m going to outline the different types of hill workouts and highlight the potential benefits of each. This way, you can better understand the physiological components and better incorporate the right type of hills into your training.

What benefit does hill training provide

Many runners consider any workout that involves using a hill to be the same, but the advantages and physiological benefits of hill work can vary greatly depending on the duration, intensity and grade of the hill. Here are the three most common types of workouts and when they are useful in training:

Short, explosive hill sprints

Explosive hill sprints have become popular thanks to the work of Brad Hudson, Renato Canova and our own coach Nate Jenkins, but they are something elite athletes have been performing for decades and they are a great ancillary training component.

The idea is to run for 10-15 seconds up a steep hill (7-10% grade) at maximum effort. They’re called explosive hill sprints because you power up the hill like a sprinter coming out of the blocks. After each repeat, you take a full 3-4 minute rest so that you’re fully recovered before starting again.

These types of hill sprints are designed to activate and improve the function of the neuromuscular system and increase maximal stroke volume in the heart.

The neuromuscular system, is the communication vehicle between what your brain and your muscles. A boost of “fitness” to the neuromuscular system allows your brain to increase the speed at which it sends signals to the muscles and, more importantly, allows your body to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibers and fire them more forcefully.

Enhancing maximal stroke volume increases the amount of blood your heart can pump with each stroke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and makes the heart more efficient.

These types of hill sprints are not a workout per say, but more an ancillary training component, much like strides and form drills. Likewise, the physiological benefits won’t make you a better hill runner, even though they can help you improve as an overall runner.

Long hill repeats

Long hill repeats are the traditional type of hill workouts many runners want to do when they feel they need to improve their hill running skills. A good example of this type of workout is 10 x 90 second hill sprints at mile race pace with a walk or jog back down for rest.

These hill workouts are fantastic for improving VO2max and increasing muscle strength. In fact, long hill repeats are almost a form of strength training. As a runner, you can do squats, lunges, and hamstring curls until your muscles burn, but nothing compares exactly to running. The forceful contractions caused by the lifting of the hips, glutes and quads up the hill utilizes the same principle mechanics behind doing plyometrics. Also, because these long hill repeats are often very intense and last anywhere from 30-90 seconds, so they are a great VO2 max workout.

Unfortunately, doing lots of hill repeats will not help you run faster over a hilly course. During a race, many of the hills you will encounter will be long and gradual, not steep and short. Furthermore, the pace at which you ascend the hill will be conservative, not an all out sprint. Therefore, the specific muscles you are working and the specific demands you are placing on your body will be drastically different between a hill repeat workout and race.

This doesn’t mean that long hill repeats are useless. You can build general running strength and fitness when you include them as in integrated part of your training plan. So, as coaches, we sprinkle them into your training in place of a VO2 max workout on occasion to help build muscle strength and help you enjoy a nice change of pace.

Rolling hills

If you’re looking to improve your ability to tackle hills on race day, then incorporating rolling hills into your threshold and long runs is the perfect solution. This is how most elite training groups handle races contested over difficult courses. Case in point, in 2008, the Hansons marathon training group did all of their workouts on a hilly out-an-back loop to simulate the rolling hills they would face at the Olympic Trials in NYC. The plan worked out great for eventual Olympian Brian Sell.

Incorporating rolling hills into your normal workouts provides your muscles and physiological energy systems the specific stimulus that it will face on race day – improving form over longer and more gradual hills and maintaining pace up and over the hill.

Furthermore, using hills during your normal workouts teaches you how to pace yourself up and over hills so you can keep the effort within your target pace range during the race. Many runners attack hills too hard during a race, and as a consequence they go anaerobic and have to slow down considerably once the hill is over. The appropriate way to approach hills during a race is to maintain the same effort up and down, which will even out the pace over the long run. By practicing this tactic in training, you can become an expert at in on race day and save yourself from exerting too much energy.

Finally, rolling hills are a great way to prepare for a hilly race because they don’t require a change to your normal training routine. We can still execute all the threshold and long runs you need, but by changing your route to include a few hills, you’ll be specifically prepared for the hills on race day. Yup, in this case, it’s really that easy

So, if you are training for a race that will be on a hilly course, consider running a route with rolling hills on your long run and threshold workout days as a specific way to prepare for the specific demands you’ll face on race day.

A version of this post originally appeared at competitor.com

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5 Responses on “Training for a hilly race: When and How to Use Hills in your Training

  1. Hi, Jeff! Thanks for this article! Am currently training for a 25k trail race that has 4600′ of elevation gain – essentially traverses three mountains. The issue i’m kind of at a loss about is knowing how best to prepare. I live in a city and there are short 0.5mile long hills with up to 250′ of elevation gain, but nothing comparing to 2-3 miles of sustained uphill/downhill in a shot with over 1000′ of elevation change. Fortunately there are nice trails nearby to run on with rolling hills. But is there a good or ideal way train for those elevation changes with the landscape I have near me?

  2. You might have to just use a treadmill. Finding sustained, long hills is usually hard unless you live in the mountains. However, lots of ultra runners do their hill specific work on the treadmill, so it should work as a solution. Best of luck!

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