The Benefits of Hill Running Workouts Plus 3 Hill Workouts to Increase Speed, Build Endurance, and Improve your Running Form

Hill Running Benefits and 3 Hill Running Workouts

I’ll be the first to admit that running hills is intimidating and I didn’t always seek them out in my training. However, hills are a guaranteed training tool for increasing your speed, improving your running form and economy, and building your endurance. So recently I began to incorporate more hills into my training (increasing gradually as my sprained foot continues to heal) in hopes of becoming faster, fitter, and a better runner and hiker.

And I’ll admit that I’m becoming a bit of a hill lover already: while I still love my normal flat routes for long runs and harder workouts, hills on my easy run are making me feel stronger and inject a sense of thrill into a normal easy run.

Yes hills present a challenge to every runner, but that’s why hill running workouts will improve your running: you need to add a stressor to see physiological adaptations. Stressors are inherently challenging, whether you are increasing your mileage, running faster, or lifting heavier weights.

Even more so: why avoid workouts that intimidate you? It’s not like those hills are actually going to kill you or ruin your day. If anything, they will only make you physically and mentally strong. So quit avoiding them on your route and try one of these 3 hill running workouts!

The Benefits of Hill Running Workouts Plus 3 Hill Workouts to Increase Speed, Build Endurance, and Improve your Running Form

The Benefits of Hill Running Workouts

Let’s talk physics-y: gravity works against you when you run up a hill. The same pace will require more energy and therefore more effort to propel your body weight against the force of gravity as you ascend the hill.

Of course, that’s why downhill running lets you run faster: gravity assists you, thus reducing the amount of energy required for downhill running.

The benefits of hill running workouts:

  • Improved turnover of feet, which means faster cadence (key for running faster).
  • Better neuromuscular fitness, which improves your running economy across all distances
  • Builds power and strength in the lower body
  • Uses a variety of muscles, which teaches you to activate those muscles while running on any terrain (glute activation is important for powerful running)
  • Decreased risk of injury (especially hamstring injury) compared to fast running on flat ground
  • Hills are speedwork in disguise – a cliche amongst running coaches but true!
  • Hills build your endurance and increase your fatigue resistance
  • You feel strong and that confidence permeates to other areas of your life and running

When to include hills:

  • During the base phase, in lieu of speed work: hills place less stress on the body than speed work, so you can focus on building your mileage while maintaining some speed and power.
  • When you’re training for hilly race: specificity should be the number one priority in planning your workouts.
  • When you want to lose weight: running hills burns more calories than flat ground running.
  • When you’re in a plateau: running hills will help you get faster, even when you’re already doing speed work.

Don’t have hills near you? Opt for the treadmill, although you will lose some of the benefits of downhill running, or find a parking garage and run it during low traffic hours (and practice good safety measures, including visibility and unplugging from any music or podcasts!).

3 Hill Running Workouts for Runners of All Levels

The Benefits of Hill Running Workouts Plus 3 Hill Workouts to Increase Speed, Build Endurance, and Improve your Running Form

Hill Sprints

Hill sprints offer numerous benefits to runners: serious metabolism-boosting afterburn, improved running form, better resistance to fatigue, increased stroke volume (more blood pumped to the muscles), stronger lower body muscles, and bursts of speed development without the wear and tear of traditional speed work.

Plus, hill sprints give distance runners the exhilaration of running at top effort – without the risk of injury since uphill running places less force and stress on the joints and muscles than flat or downhill running.

Hill sprints are an ancillary workout, similar to strides or form drills. Therefore you can include them on easy days and see significant benefits in your training without the accumulation of too much fatigue or wear on the body. However, if you are training for very hilly race like Boston or New York City Marathon, you will need to do additional hill running workouts beyond hill sprints to train your body to run hills well.

As you would with any new training load, gradually introduce hill sprints into your routine with 1-2 repeats of 8 seconds uphill (with a full recovery of 60-90 seconds in between) once or twice per week after an easy run. Ideally, you should run hill sprints on a 5-10% incline, but any hill that gets you huffing and puffing without altering your form will work. Give your body a week or two to adapt, and then increase the number of repetitions.

Hill sprints are ideal for runners of all levels and for any point in your training.

Hill Repeats

Forget the track; hill repeats will teach your body to recruit your fast twitch muscle fibers and run faster without the speed work’s risk of injury.

I also love hill repeats because the physics of them force you to rely on perceived effort rather than pace. Most hill workouts are described in terms of “5K effort” rather than “5K pace,” and that effort will vary drastically based on the gradient of your hill of choice, the wind, and other factors.

You can do hill repeats for anywhere duration from 30 seconds to 5 minutes and at any effort from 3K to 10K effort (very hard to hard).

As with all harder running workouts including fartleks and tempo runs, warm up with 5-20 minutes (depending on your mileage) of easy running followed by dynamic stretches and drills such as high knees, butt kicks, and skips. Then, run 6-8 x 1 minute hard uphill (your breathing should be labored, but not so hard that you crash and burn after a few repeats) and recover with a slow jog back down (1-2 minutes). Cool down with 5-20 minutes of easy running, foam roll, refuel, and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.

Uphill Progression Run

Some race courses are notorious for their nasty uphill finishes. While we may never know why a race director thought it was a good idea to make tired runners climb a giant hill before crossing the finish line, specificity is the golden rule of training and if your race features hills in the last quarters, then you want to train to finish a run with a uphill portion.

An uphill progression run will benefit you even if you aren’t running the Boston Marathon or the Seattle Rock and Roll Marathon/Half Marathon. Why? An uphill progression run teaches you two things: how to recruit your muscle to power uphill and how to push the effort of a run when you’re fatigued. Progression runs of any sort teach runners how to pace properly during a race, especially if you’ve repeatedly gone out too fast in marathons and half marathons.

You can add an uphill progression run to any length of run, but the most benefits will come from runs of 60 minutes or more when you have time to accumulate some fatigue in your legs. During the final 10-15 minutes of an easy paced run of 7-10 miles, find a long gradual uphill or a series of rolling hills and run them at a moderate effort. Your pace may not change, but you should notice an increase in your perceived exertion.

This work is particularly beneficial to marathoners, who need to learn to recruit their fast twitch muscles when fatigued and run at a higher perceived exertion at the end of the run. An uphill progression run will make the final 10K of a full or 5K of a half marathon feel easier and help you run that PR you’ve been training so hard for.

Most importantly, run all of these workouts with proper uphill and downhill running form: upright posture, strong pumping arms, and a quick cadence. This Runner’s Connect article provides excellent instruction on proper vs. improper hill running form.

Of course, these workouts should be part of a structured, progressive, and logical training plan if you are training for a race. A hodgepodge of workouts is not a training plan! If in doubt or if you want someone to take all of the guesswork out of training for you, please consider hiring a running coach (you can learn more about my coaching services and training plans here!).

Linking up for Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday!

What type of running workouts have you avoided in the past or avoid now because they intimidate you?
What’s your favorite type of hill workout?
Hilliest race you’ve ever ran?

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32 Responses

  1. I used to avoid hills but I definitely think they are so beneficial! I started doing hill repeats when I lived in the city and ran in mostly flat areas and I noticed lots of benefits. Now I always run some hills because I can’t avoid them, but doing specific hill workouts helps even more. I also think including hills on my tempo and long run during marathon training helped to prepare me for a hilly race!

    1. Hilly tempos and long runs are great workouts as well! I have an athlete running Route 66 just like you did last year and am already thinking of hilly long runs for her training, so I’m glad to hear they helped you so much!

  2. I hated hills. Yes hated hills. And now that I’m about to run an “only one hill” race of 7.6 miles that’s all hill, I can say I actually kind of like them. Ask me again AFTER I run the race!

    1. Your hill training has been so inspiring! And I love all of your photos of it. Best of luck at Mount Washington – it’s just one hill and you are going to crush it!

    1. It is convenient not to have to drive to run – you’re lucky! I have to drive to run unless I want to do the same 1/2 mile uphill, 1/2 mile downhill (so boring to run back and forth like that 7 or 8 times) while dodging kids, school buses, and commuters, so I might as well find good running hills.

  3. I used to love running hills during races because my training did such a good job of preparing me for it! (I lived in VA and NYC, so hills were just par for the course!). ANd now…. what’s a hill? LOL

  4. Yes!! Hills!! So many hills training for PGH, as you remember. Did I fall in love with them? Honestly, no. I can’t say I like them, but I do have a much deeper appreciation for them. There is something so much more satisfying about crushing a race on a hilly course than on a flat, downhill, easy one when the odds are in your favor. Once you incorporate hills you realize that they really are their own reward.

    I think one thing that keeps a lot of people from hill running is the pride thing – who among us doesn’t hate to see slow paces on our watch? I say, if you’re doing hill workouts, ditch the GPS, and run by effort. Not only does this allow you to concentrate better on form and breathing, but once you’re free from the judgement of your stats, it’s a lot easier to just relax and embrace the workout.

    1. You have a very valid point regarding the pride / slower paces. UGH!! That is so difficult for me when I see the pace “drop” (yet the effort is the same or more intense) while trudging up a hill.

      1. But as a payoff, you’ll see faster paces on flat running over time! Hills are a work of patience, but really seeing a “slow” pace on an easy day isn’t a big deal even on flat.

    2. And like you said last week, hills teach and require patience – your splits can be the same as your warm up, even though the effort is harder. I agree that pride is an issue – or, in my case, not being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because even at an easy pace, hills aren’t comfortable. And yes to ditching the GPS, or at the very least instant pace, on hill runs! Otherwise you’re just going to burn out, get injured, or be down on yourself.

  5. We have ZERO hills around here in Charleston! This is the flattest and most humid place ever. I’ve always lived in coastal SC but I seriously think Charleston is flatter than even the areas that are 50-60 miles inland. I have runs where the most elevation change is 4 ft.

    With that said, we do run “hills”… Cooper River Bridge and parking garages! There’s also a neighborhood in Summerville with a few inclines and while no one outside of Charleston would consider them hills, it does break up the monotony of pure flat road. I love running actual hills when I go to NC to the mountains to see my grandparents, too.

    1. Wow, 4 ft? My flattest runs here are usually 50-70 feet, but that is flat! Bridges are an excellent hill training tool – and so many races use bridges that it’s good for preparing for those as well! I bet running in the mountains is a nice treat in addition to a good workout.

    1. Hills in easy runs are effective as well! There always are those hills, no matter how often we run other hills, that are so crazy steep that they’re never be unintimidating!

  6. Whenever I do my speed or tempo runs, I avoid the massive hill that connects the flats to our home and instead I will use the downhill as my warmup and then the uphill as my cool down. Otherwise, all my other runs (besides treadmill) include that massive beast! Despite being surrounded by hills, I’m not remarkably strong on them.

    1. The way you’ve described that hill on your blog I’m pretty sure you live on a mountain. I bet it’s a fantastic training tool! I’m sure also you are a better hill runner than you give yourself credit for. You’re going to chew up and spit out Seattle’s hills on Saturday, not the other way around!

  7. Hills are definitely something that I tend to avoid way too often. As you said, they are not going to kill us or eat us alive, so just do it. 🙂 (sort of what you said). Fortunately for the area we live in, we are able to find hills relatively easily without having to go very far.

    Thank you for sharing the workouts!!

  8. There are hills all throughout my neighborhood so they are naturally incorporated into my runs, but I need to do a better job of doing hill sprints or some repeats up them after a longer run for the benefits that you mentioned!

    1. Hill sprints are great because they don’t take much time or effort – just a little bit at the end of an easy run, with a huge bang for your buck. I hope you enjoy them if you add them in! 🙂

  9. I love running hills. It’s so fun!! It’s such a great workout on the way up, and then it’s so relaxing on the way down. 🙂

    1. They are! I used to avoid them and now I’m wondering why – I would even say they’re more fun than speedwork, but maybe that’s the distance runner in me 🙂

  10. I’ve tried to avoid hills even though my typical running terrain in Central Park is full of them, and so is my hometown in CT, by taking strategic walk breaks and running strange routes. Until now, that is – thanks for making me face down the hills just a little baby step at a time with my marathon plan 🙂

  11. I don’t (can’t) avoid hills, but I will always love the downhills more 🙂

    The hilliest race I have run was up the mountain at a ski resort – I think it was something like 2,500 feet uphill over 7 miles. Needless to say, it was more of a hike than a race.

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