Hill Reps: How to Boost Your Training

hill repeats
Running hill reps is an excellent way to boost your training by building strength and speed, and can be helpful for runners of all levels and abilities. We explore why hill training is so effective, how to run hill repeats well, and the type of sessions you can do.

Why?

What are the benefits of running hill reps? Well here are a few…

1. Resistance training… specific to running
Hill reps are a form of resistance training, but much more specific to running than other resistance work such as doing circuits or weights in the gym. You are building strength while running.

They are an excellent way to increase the power you’re required to use in a workout – basically you have to work harder, and in the process you are building strength and speed. They help you to develop the muscle fibres you need most for running, and particularly for strength in the quads, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles.

2. Running form
Running uphill encourages good form, in particular:

  • Higher knee lift – which helps to improve stride length and speed.
  • Arm drive – the importance of arms is often underestimated by runners, and it’s common to see runners using poor arm movement. Running uphill hard forces you to use all of your body, including arms, to help you move… so it helps your body learn a more effective way to move your arms.
  • Triple leg extension – pushing out and stretching your back leg as you move upwards is similar to the movement used in fast running on the flat, and can help you build speed.

3. Super fitness boost!
Hills are brilliant for cardiovascular fitness. You’ll be working harder to move up a slope compared with on the flat, and you’ll get more out of breath sooner. Your heart is required to work harder, and the workout will help you improve the efficiency of your aerobic system to get oxygen around the body more quickly.

4. Potential for injury prevention
Running reps uphill is lower impact than other high intensity speed sessions. You get all of the benefits of intervals but without pounding quite so hard through each step.

In addition, the strength development and improved form you gain from hill reps will help you to become generally more resistant to injury.

However, there are a few things to be aware of to make sure hills don’t end up causing you a problem:

  • Allow recovery – intense sessions can be very tiring. You may need a day or two rest after a hard hill session, and it’s probably not advisable to do more than one session of intense hill reps per week.
  • Build gradually – hills can be hard on the calf muscles in particular. Although they are building your calf strength, you need to avoid doing too much too soon, or you could hurt yourself.
  • Go downhill gently – running downhill increases injury risk because you are using eccentric forces in the muscles as a braking mechanism. You are also putting a great deal of force through every step. Use the downhills as a jog or walk recovery between reps.

5. Mental benefits
An often-overlooked benefit of hill running is the huge psychological boost it can give you. When you know you have the resilience to run hill reps, you learn more about your own inner mental strength.

Hills can easily become mental barriers, and once you build that confidence that you can break down that barrier if you change the way you perceive it, you realise that you can apply the same to any aspect of your running and racing.

6. Pacing
Hill reps are also great for improving your ability to pace well. They require judgement of effort – particularly over longer hills – for you to push hard but not run out of steam before the end.

7. Variety and fun
Hills can be fun! Lots of runners love to have some variety in their training, and it’s great to have a new dynamic session to get your teeth into. Hills can be intense and give you a real lift when you’ve finished them.

If you find the idea a little intimidating, try doing them with a friend or a group so you have others there for encouragement.

How? Using hill reps in training

There are a few things to consider for incorporating hill reps into your training:

1. Warm up and cool down
It’s important to warm up well before running hill reps. These are intense sessions, and your body isn’t ready to jump straight into them. It’s important to raise your heart rate and warm up your muscles before starting.

Jog for at least 1 mile before starting your session, and do some dynamic stretches (such as shown in this article).

Afterwards jog for a mile to allow your heart rate to come down gradually and enable blood flow to the muscles to promote faster repair.

2. Run up hard, down gently
The uphill is where you put in the hard effort, and then slowly walk or jog back down again as recovery.

3. Ideas for hill rep sessions
There are plenty of different ways to run hill repeats. It’s important to build up gradually, and do what feels hard but manageable to start with. You can slowly increase the number of reps each week from there if you want to. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Introduction:
For those who haven’t run hill repeats before, start with a session like this:
3-6 x 30 seconds uphill, faster than 5km pace, jogging back down as recovery.

For endurance:
If you want to use hill sessions to help develop your endurance (for example for half or full marathon training), try a slightly longer, less intense session such as
4-8 x 90 seconds to 2 mins uphill, at around 5k pace, jogging back down as recovery.

For speed:
If you’re using hill reps to develop speed, try something like this
8-15 x 30-45 seconds uphill, at faster than your 5k pace, jogging back down as recovery. Take a three minute rest half way through.

4. Type of hill
You don’t need a mountain! In fact, avoid a hill that is too steep. Ideally, you want a slope of around 10-15% gradient so you are working hard but you are able to get into a rhythm and run properly. Less of a slope won’t be quite as effective.

How far you run up will depend on the type of session you’re doing – see session suggestions above.

5. How often?
Hill repeats can be run as often as once a week, or less often. They can take a bit of recovery time, depending on how intensely you’ve run them.

Good running form for hills

When running uphill, pay attention to your posture. Running efficiently will make a huge difference to how well you run hills. Think about the following:

  • Short, quick strides – take smaller steps than usual, but try to keep them quick (high turnover or “cadence”). This will help you reaching out your front foot too far, which makes the effort of each step greater.
  • Stay tall and upright – don’t lean too far forward – stand tall and look slightly up the hill.
  • Use your arms to drive – your arms can really help you gain extra momentum, so make sure they are driving forward and backward. The elbow should go behind you in the backward drive, with hands coming up to near middle-of-chest height in the forward drive. Try to keep a 90% bend at the elbow throughout. Practise this standing still so you get the feel of it.

Finally…

So there are plenty of ways in which hill reps can boost your training. Build up gradually, but if you include a hill session in your training you’ll reap the benefits in terms of strength, fitness and speed. Have fun!

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