Explosive Hill Sprints
After a lot of research and experimentation on myself, I believe inserting short hill sprints into the training of the athletes I coach has had a tremendous benefit on their overall fitness and speed. Specifically, I will have my athletes run between two and twelve 10-12 second hill sprints up a steep incline at 95% effort with full recovery. When I first assign this workout a lot of the athletes think I must be crazy when I ask them to interrupt or end a distance run for 2x10sec hill sprints. To them, and to me at first, it would seem to be a big waste of time. However, this article will put to rest those inhibitions and shed light onto the benefits of this new idea.
I first heard about this idea from Brad Hudson, former coach of Dathan Ritzenhein and the current coach of James Carney, about 5 years ago. Over the last few years I have begun to conduct my own evaluation of the research to see if this was a useful and practical training tool. After some extensive reading I do believe that the physiological and neuromuscular benefits of these sprints are numerous and can serve as a critical piece into most athletes training systems.
There are three main benefits that come from doing the hills sprints. First, there is the strength building and injury prevention aspect, second there is the neuromuscular development, and lastly there are the cardiovascular adaptations.
The most obvious training aspect of the three is the strength development. Hill running is the most specific form of strength training that a runner can do. We can do squats, lunges, and hamstring curls until our muscles sear but nothing compares exactly to running. When you run up a hill there is an increased resistance and thereby an increase in specific running strength. The explosive reaction caused by the lifting of the hips, glutes and quads up the hill utilizes the same principle mechanics behind doing plyometrics.
However, what a lot of runners don’t realize is that these hill sprints can help ward of injury as well. Running no more than 10 seconds ensures that there is no lactate build-up in the muscles and little fatigue, the main culprit behind most overuse injuries. In addition, the hill shortens the distance your foot has to fall or land before it hits the ground, thereby decreasing the amount of shock on the body. Additionally, if the sprints are progressed in a safe and appropriate training program the strength benefit of the hills helps strengthen the muscles, ligaments and tendons that so often become injured.
2. The second benefit involves the activation and increases of efficiency in the neuromuscular system. The neuromuscular system, in brief, is the communication system between what your brain and your muscles. A boost of “fitness” to the neuromuscular system allows your body 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. The execution of short, explosive hill sprints greatly enhances both of these neurological factors.
3. The final training adaptation these short hill sprints evoke is the increase in the maximal stroke volume of heart. This is a fairly complicated cardiologic discussion but simply stated, stroke volume is the amount of blood that can be pumped from the heart in one stoke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and, in a sense, makes the heart more efficient.
The last point I would like to discuss is the reason behind the rather slow progression in utilization of these sprints. For many people, the introduction of such explosive sprinting into their training is a huge change. Many distance runners go years without ever doing any true explosive or sprint work. While 2 repeats may seem like a waste of time, it is important to allow the body time to adapt the changing stimulus. I have noticed that increasing the volume of this workout too rapidly increases the injury rate astronomically. I have found through experimentation on former athletes and myself that starting with two or three repeats for the first few weeks allows the body to adapt to the new stimulus and remain injury free.
How to perform the hill sprints
Ideally, you would start the hill sprints with about a mile or half mile to go in your run. This would allow you to complete the majority of the distance, but still have a small recovery jog home to loosen up. However, we don’t all have a hill within a mile of our finishing spot. So, if the hill sprints have to come in the middle or the end of your run, that is fine.
Choose a hill that is between and 7-10% grade. This will be steep, but it doesn’t have to be a cliff. Before you start the hill sprints, make sure you get in a light stretch and work on any muscles that have been tight. Stand at the bottom and, from a standing start, sprint up the hill as fast as you can. Land on the balls of your feet and pump your arms. I like to think you myself “explode, explode, explode” as I head off the line. The sprint is designed to maximum effort, so don’t go over 15 seconds. Walk slowly and gently back down the hill, rest for 2 minutes or until you are completely recovered, and repeat for as many times as your schedule indicates.
I hope this little article helped explain exactly what it is we are trying to accomplish with these explosive hill sprints. I have included a video at the bottom of the post to help illustrate exactly how these should be done. I welcome comments, feedback and suggestions!