Hill training is a great way to introduce and develop power in your legs. Most runners will benefit from just one day a week of gentle, low incline, short-duration hill repeats. However, if you are training for a hilly course and need endurance and efficiency in hilly terrain, then longer intervals may be more appropriate.
The first thing to keep in mind is that hills add an intensity factor to run training. As such, they should not be taken lightly, and a runner should have a good handle on endurance and should slowly introduce hill volume over time rather than adding in full repeat workouts. Also, a runner will need to have good capacity in their posterior lower leg, the calf complex and Achilles tendon. Hills will absolutely stress those muscles quite a bit. So if you’ve been having recalcitrant issues or have struggled in the past, make strength training a priority to improve soft tissue tolerance to the running.
Now let’s talk about the what and the where. Find yourself a good hill around 6-10% incline. Ideally, there will be a small flat section, about 10 feet, prior to the start of the hill where you can get up to speed first before your interval “starts.” It’s not the end of the world if you can’t, but it’s always a good idea. Sprinters can benefit from hill incline slightly closer to the 10% grade, but most of us recreational runners will do just fine on lower inclines around 6-8%. Consistency is key, which is why the intensity of the repeats is important.
These will be moderate-high efforts but definitely sub-maximal. What that means is, you’ll be working hard, but not 100% effort because we don’t want form to get sloppy or compromise any part of the workout. So an effort level of 90% will be perfect, and if you’re new to hills or re-introducing them, then keeping the first couple of workouts capped at a lower to moderate level may not be a bad idea to give your body (muscles and tendons) a chance to adapt while mitigating any risks. Think about half marathon pace for the warmups and then 10k pace for the efforts.
The duration will be around 10-20 seconds. Generally, the steeper the incline then the shorter the duration. There is an indirect relationship there. But for our 6-10% incline, a 10-20sec effort at ~90% (less if you’re just starting out) is a hell of a good workout. You can aim for 8-10 repeats, again unless you’re just starting out, then maybe cap it to 2-3, and then 3-5 repeats your first couple of sessions. If you are looking for rolling hills or longer uphill segments to train for a high elevation race, then I think bouts of 1-2 minute repeats at the same 6-8% incline is perfect.
Now, here’s the important part, the rest! It’s tough to get endurance athletes to buy into rest periods. We just don’t like to do it. But in this instance, rest is paramount. You need a FULL recovery between reps. Ideally, ~ 2 minutes rest is sufficient to allow your heart rate to come down and not feel your heart pounding in your chest. So after the work up the hill, slowly walk down and then rest another minute or so before you get your feet moving uphill again. This is crucial for a full recovery because the focus of hill repeats is consistency in perfect form and high-quality movements. When in doubt, get a little bit more rest. I can’t stress enough, it’s not possible to have too much recovery here, 2 minutes is not “too much” for this neuromuscular and power drill.
So find some inclines or rolling hills, keep those feet moving quickly, and focus on the quality of movements, not just reps for the sake of reps. If you have any questions, you know where to find us. =)