5 of the best hill sessions to boost your running strength

Hills may not be everyone’s favourite but a hill workout is a great way to boost your mental and physical strength and improve your running fitness, too.

NURVV resident run coach Tom Craggs shares his five favourite sessions and reveals why we should all be adding hills to our running schedule:

Why should runners do hill workouts?

Hill sessions are a powerful way to shift your running fitness up a gear.

Unless you have a specific injury, which limits you, or you have literally NO inclines available, hill training should ALWAYS play a part in your training mix. Hill training builds both physiological and psychological strength. It develops your heart and lungs, provides bodyweight resistance exercise and builds your mental strength.

Regular and progressive hill training will carve your technique out of stone and help you hold your pace better in the later stages of a race. Of course inclines feel hard but you get out what you put in. Don’t avoid the hills, embrace them and they will pay you back with PBs in time!

When should you do hill workouts?

Hills require respect so make sure you have enough recovery around your hard hill session days and avoid running them on back-to-back days with other hard sessions. Always make sure you are well warmed up before tackling any of the hill sessions below.

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Hill session 1: A-lactate hills

Best for: building speed

You don’t develop new speed running kilometre reps, or even 400m repeats. These sessions can be great at extending speed you already have, but developing new speed takes much more specific work.

New speed comes from developing and recruiting more fast-twitch muscle fibres (the fibres that provide short bursts of strength and speed) when we run. Distance runners aren’t always great at springing on the flat, and that’s where short hills run at a maximal speed can become a key session.

The session:

  • Warm up well for at least 15 minutes.
  • On a hill with a moderate gradient, run 5-6 sets of 8-10 seconds uphill. Run near your maximum sprinting effort.
  • Take a long 90-120-second recovery between each effort.
  • In your first few sessions consider making things a little easier by running at around 800m-1500m intensity. As you build confidence, work towards a full sprint

Hill session 2: continuous hills

Best for: building strength endurance

In longer races, from 10km to marathon distance, our bodies are often more limited by the endurance of our muscles than by our cardiovascular fitness.

Continuous hills are particularly effective at building strength endurance – so our muscles can keep going for longer – as they involve running both up and downhill at pace. When we run downhill faster, we load our quads eccentrically, which, with the right dosage, can be highly effective for longer events.

The session:

  • Warm up.
  • Find a hill with a steady gradient. Run up the hill for 45-60 seconds at an effort where you’d only be able to reply with three or four words if someone asked you a question.
  • Turn and run downhill at 3-4 word answer effort.
  • Repeat up and down for the full block of time. You’ll run up at a controlled, steady speed, and down quite fast.
  • Start by including 4 x 6 minutes of repeats and build over a number of weeks to 3 x 10 minutes or even 4 x 8 with a short 90-120 second recovery between each block

Hill session 3: Sandwich hills

Best for: race preparation

Adding short fast hill efforts either side of blocks of race-pace running, can be effective at mimicking the final few miles of a race so you’ll get used to running on tired legs.

’Sandwich’ sessions will see you generating high levels of fatigue in the middle of the session before testing yourself at your goal race pace at the end.

The session:

  • Warm up with 10-20 minutes of easy running, finishing a little faster.
  • Run 8-10 minutes on a flat route at a controlled level of discomfort, 3-4 word answer effort or around a 10km-10-mile pace.
  • Rest for 2 minutes.
  • Complete 8-12 sets of 45-60 second fast hills.
  • Jog back to the bottom of the hill to recover between each hill repeat.
  • Rest for 2-minutes
  • Get back on the flat and repeat your 8-10-minute block of 10km-10-mile pace.

Hill session 4: engine building hills

Best for: building fitness

One of the most effective ways you can build fitness is by completing long hard efforts of 2-4 minutes where you raise your heart to 90-95% of your maximum. These sessions can be very effective at improving your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise) and many runners will find it easier to achieve these intensities on a hill than they might on the flat.

Don’t attack these hills too hard too early, these are long efforts and will bite in the second half!

The session:

  • After a good warm up run hard up a hill with a gradual, not too steep gradient.
  • The intensity might feel like a 5km effort but will be a little slower due to the incline.
  • Recover with a slow jog back down the hill.
  • Start with 5 x 2 minutes of hill repeats and progress over time to sessions such as 5 x 4 minutes or 6-8 x 3 minutes.

Hill session 5: Lydiard hills

Best for: experienced runners

Legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard was well known for using hills to develop runners –from middle distance athletes right up to marathon runners. His best-known session was hill ‘bounding’ which can be highly effective at developing the reactive force of your running stride, helping you push off and drive. This can be particularly beneficial for 800m-5km runners.

Lydiard hill circuits are best suited to runners with a bit more experience so consider this session if you have tried out some of the sessions above and found them useful.

The session:

  • Warm up.
  • Find a hilly loop.
  • Run the uphill with a pronounced bounding movement, imagine springing up the hill, as Lydiard would put it, ‘like a deer’ for about 15-30 seconds fully straightening your rear leg.
  • Jog a flat section of recovery at the top.
  • Run back downhill with fast but relaxed strides focusing on fast cadence, then jog back to the uphill again.

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