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Let’s Get Faster –– Part 2: Hills: Speed Work in Disguise

To get faster, it helps to vary your workouts. This week, let’s try getting faster by training on the hills. As Olympic marathoner Frank Shorter famously said, “Hills are speed work in disguise." The hill workout should be done on a weekly basis. They are good for younger runners looking to figure out form and improve cadence. For masters runners, they also can be a fantastic addition because they allow for a tough, speed interval-type workout without the stress on the muscular-skeletal system.

How does hill running build speed? Running up an incline forces you to take quicker, smaller steps. This will help to make your running form more efficient as your cadence, or steps-per-minute, increase. It’s also a good time to think about and work on running form.

Effective hill workouts can be done on a variety of different inclines and lengths. For your first hill workout, you’ll want to find a 200-400 meter hill with a fairly gradual elevation of 5-7 percent. Make friends with this hill because you’ll be running up and down it four times (and, as your fitness level improves, you’ll be doing multiple sets of four.) Make sure that you pace yourself appropriately throughout so that you have enough energy to complete the workout.

Your pace should be fast but not too fast. If you find yourself in oxygen debt with a rocketing heart rate, you are overdoing it. The hill itself is providing the training stimulus and is more important than the speed at which you ascend. That being said, try to maintain a consistent pace. This can be difficult to do if you begin too quickly. It will be very tempting to slow down as you near the top –– “Hey, I’m almost there, time to relax.” Fight that impulse! Charging “up and OVER” will help train your mind and body not to let down on the hills during races. It is also that extra effort that will help cultivate overall running speed and contribute to overall strength.

While you are running up the hill, devote your attention to form. Be sure to take short, quick steps. The upward slope of the hill should make it difficult not to do this. Vigorously swing your arms forward while concentrating on reducing inefficient side-to-side arm motion. Be sure to land on your forefoot or midfoot as you are running up the hill. Again, it will probably be difficult not to do this as you are running up an incline.


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Once you are up and over, it’s time to concentrate on downhill form. Lean forward slightly and keep your torso above your hips. Do not reach out with your feet. Drop your arms and windmill them out to the sides in tight circles as you are going down a steeper hill. This technique will help with both balance and stability.

Running uphill is stressful, so you’ll want to use the downhill to allow yourself to recover from the uphill effort; then, turn around and repeat the whole process three more times. After running up and down your chosen hill four times, run an easy five minutes on the flat for recovery. If your heart rate is still elevated, take some additional recovery time. I prefer active recovery between sets –– running at a relaxed, conversational pace rather than walking. This can help to prevent leg stiffness and soreness brought on by the accumulation of lactic acid. (If you do get some soreness from using new muscles in different ways, a massage roller can loosen things up and help you recover for the next run.)

Start adding another set or two when you are feeling good and can maintain good form. Since better form makes for a faster runner, it doesn’t help you to stumble up a hill over and over just for the sake of saying you did it. If you are exhausted after eight hill repeats, cool down with an easy run and end your workout. You are after quality workouts. The hill will be there next week.

Tracking your hill workouts with a Garmin can give you a sense of accomplishment

After several weeks of building up both speed and endurance on longer hill repeats, it’s time for sprints. Hill sprints help to recruit fast twitch muscles for speed, as well as reinforce your neuromuscular efficiency by training your brain to send signals to your muscles more quickly. It is also clear that stride efficiency is improved as good form becomes part of your muscle memory during the hill sprint workout. Coach Brad Hudson has made the short hill sprint a staple of his training programs, ending just about every workout with some hill sprinting to lock in good form and recruit fast twitch muscle fibers.

Find a short steep hill (30-60 meters) with a 9-11 percent slope that you can sprint up in five to ten seconds. Sprint up the hill at maximum effort, then slowly walk down the hill and wait until you are fully recovered –– about 2-3 minutes –– and then sprint back up. For your first hill sprint session, do four repetitions. Over your next hill sessions, build up to eight to twelve repetitions.

Once you have implemented a weekly hill session into your running routine, shake it up frequently. There are four main variables to hill workouts –– steepness, distance, speed, and quantity –– and you can adjust any of these variables to get a different experience. For example, you can find a hill that is slightly steeper. This will increase the maximum force demanded by your workout, resulting in the strengthening of muscle fiber and recruitment of faster twitch fibers. Alternately, tackling a longer hill during your weekly hill session will help develop your speed by developing ankle flexibility (good for that heel flick) and increasing coordination between muscle groups. As you become more comfortable going up hills, you can increase your speed. Finally, you can add a new set of reps when you start to feel more comfortable running hills. However, if you’re able to do more than four sets, it might be time to find a steeper, more challenging hill or start going a little bit faster.

So far, we have worked on speed by avoiding the quarter-mile oval. Next week, we’ll need to have a talk about interval training on the track –– fast and fun.

What kinds of hill workouts have you found beneficial to your running? Please tell us about them in the comments. Yesterday was National Running Day – did you do a special workout to celebrate?

For further reading on hill workouts, see coach Pete Magill, a frequent contributor to Runners’ World and Running Times, and a big advocate of hill training (“Mastering Hill Workouts: Hill training, demystified”

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  • John Williams-Searle

    Thanks for your question, Sabrina. The number of quality workouts you should be attempting during the course of a week depends on the length of your long run. If your long run is long enough to qualify as a quality session (this will depend on how far along you are in your training) then I would recommend a weekly quality session of either intervals, hills, or fartlek training. Although all of these methods will help cultivate your running speed, they will also put slightly different stresses on your body. I would, therefore, mix the sessions up by alternating the weeks that you do hills, intervals, and fartleks. If, however, your chosen marathon is hilly, it can make sense to have several consecutive weeks of hill training. Generally, however, my advice would be to alternate and be careful about doing too many quality sessions during the course of a week, especially during the several weeks before your marathon when you should be tapering. Hope this helps and good luck with your fall marathon.

  • Sabrina

    I have enjoyed reading your Let’s Get Faster Series. I am trying to improve my speed for an upcoming Fall marathon and I was looking for advice. I am wondering how to incorporate these three methods Fartlek, Hills and Intervals into my existing marathon training plan…should I pick one method to focus on for a week and then move on to another? Or should I do Fartleks for 2 weeks moving on to hills etc? Any advice you might be able to offer would be great! Thanks for the great articles!

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