Run For The Hills

During the summer months, I tend to do a LOT of hill training. Even when I’m not training for anything in particular, I love to run hills, and this summer is no different. I was excited to learn that our new neighborhood is extremely hilly — but that excitement turned to dread the first time I actually went out for a run around here.

Hills are a strange phenomenon — as much as I love them, I also hate them while I’m running them, because I’m pretty sure they’re one of the worst kinds of torture. But although tougher workouts don’t always mean better workouts, hills offer a whole lot of good and very little bad. So, why do I have such a love/hate relationship with hills, and why do I think you should be running them too?

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First things first, let’s talk time commitment here:

Hills are efficient. 

You can get just as much work in during 20 minutes of hill repeats as you can in a 30-40 minute run, depending on the pace and elevation of your run. Since we all seem to have way less time than we actually need, replacing a steady state run with some hill repeats or hill sprints can cut your workout time in half while still giving you an incredible workout, both for your lower body and for your cardiovascular system.

Now, let’s talk about YOU:

Hills make everyone a sprinter.

Sprinting, true sprinting, is not for everyone. It can be dangerous for someone who is undertrained or over-fatigued, and many of us are just not trained to create that level of force and power in our lower extremities. Yes, we can all run “hard”, but true sprinting is not for the faint of heart (or your beginner fitness client).  Hill sprints, on the other hand, can be done by anyone. Because of the incline, the potential speed and power is much less, decreasing the chance of muscle strain or other type of injury for someone who is not a professional athlete.

On those same lines…

Hills equal less stress.

Yes, the stress on your lungs and the burn in your legs might feel impossibly hard, but the truth is, when running on an incline, the stresses to your knees, ankles and feet are much less. The incline leads to less forces at the point of impact when compared to flat surface running. Dealing with achy joints when you go out for a 4-5 mile run? Try a few hills instead (and also pair them with some strength training — it’ll help, just as long as you’ve been cleared and do not have a serious musculoskeletal injury.)

And for those of us who are feeling a bit lazy…

Hill training includes breaks.

Yes, you heard me right. When you are running hills, whether it is just repeats or sprints, I highly encourage you to take a specific rest time in between each rep. The idea is to let your muscles recover enough so that you can put full effort into the next hill run. And you know what? If you stick with this, over time, you won’t need those breaks to be as long. But remember to always listen to your body — there are some days when I can fly with only 15 second breaks in between sprints, and sometimes I need a full 30 seconds to a minute. Remember that we are not robots, we are humans, and our physical performance is influenced by so many factors in our lives.

So who’s ready to run some hills? Here’s a couple of sample hill workout that I do near my house. The hills that I run these on are pretty long, about a quarter of a mile up and back. Find a hill near you that fits your fitness level and your goals, and go! (And if you happen to live in an area without any hills — that is so foreign to me — these can always be done on a treadmill as well. Although the scenery won’t be quite as good!)

Basic Hill Repeats:

This one’s not too tough to figure out. Run up the hill at a challenging pace, though not a sprint, and jog back down. I tend to take about 10 seconds at the bottom before heading back up again. Do as many reps as you can — your last hill should be extremely challenging but you should still be able to complete it. Last time I ran the hill near my house that is about .3 miles up and back, I did 6 reps, or about 2 miles of repeats.


Find a long hill near you. Run as hard as you can for 30s, then without pausing, keep walking to the top of the hill. As your fitness improves, you’ll be able to get a little bit farther in those 30s, and you can increase the time to 35s or 40s as 30 gets easier.

Sprint Ladder:

This is one of my favorite ways to do hill runs. Run 6-8 reps at a “hard” pace, but not a sprint. Jog/walk back to the bottom, and recover for about 30s between each one. Then, over a shorter distance, sprint for 15s, repeat for an additional 6-8 times. You might be thinking “15 seconds? That’s too easy!” Well, give yourself a good enough hill, and those 15 seconds at a full sprint are all you need. Recover for about 45 seconds between these.

One of the main reasons I love running hills is because it’s really easy to see progress — can you do an extra rep? Is your speed better at the top of the hill? And I don’t know about you, but progress is what motivates me, and what makes me hungry for more. Do any of you do hill runs/sprints regularly in your workouts?

3 thoughts on “Run For The Hills

  1. A lot of people have been writing about the virtues of hills lately. I guess for all of us it is really a love hate relationship. When I see hill repeats coming up on my marathon training plan I get nervous for a week ahead of time. During them I’m dying but feel like I’m building something. After them I float for a day.

  2. it’s funny because I just talked about how much I hate running hills in a recent post! I live at the top of a hill so the end of my run is so dreaded for the mere reason I have to run UP a huge hill to get home! But you’re right, they do make you faster and stronger- and they make me feel like a champ when I get to the top!

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