Get Faster by Getting Stronger Running Hills – Build Strength to Gain Speed

Jack and Jill ran up a hill to make them faster runners. Jack fell down ‘cuz he couldn’t keep pace and Jill went barreling up faster. I think I like that nursery rhyme better, don’t you?
trail runner
Hill running, hill repeats, hill tempos, hilly switch-backs, hilly long runs. All of them can improve your strength and speed as a runner. Some people seem to think that runners fall into one of two categories: hill runners or flat runners. To some degree it’s true, you may naturally be better at climbing than someone else, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve by running hill.

“I by no means think I have mastered the hills or climbing but I am improving and for me that means hours running up vertical inclines, sometimes fast sometimes just a long grind, but always pushing to get better,” explains ultra marathoning champ Michael Wardian, “I am trying to do hills a few times a week, that is a weakness or has been so I want to fix that.”

During base training season is another instance where adding hillier routes into the mix is a great idea. “But I’m getting ready for track season, not cross-country, why should I be doing hill repeats now?” you may wonder. The answer is because hills will make you FASTER on the flats. The power and strength you gain from running up hills will translate to being speedier when you go back down to the flats.

Don’t believe me, then try this. When I was training with the Nike Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar would have us drive out to this sketchy little track at a local YMCA. It was comical that Olympians (not me, my training partners, trust me, I know my place! haha) would be busting out workouts while dodging potholes in lane one and sharing the track with tons of walkers who were completely oblivious. Why did we go to this track, because it sat right next to a hill where we could alternate between track intervals and hill repeats.

Try This Hill Sprints Workout:

* Warm-up (duh)
* 4×200 meters on a track (with 200 meter recovery jog)
* 8×200 meter hill charge (easy jog back down for recovery)
* 4×200 meters on track (with 200 meter recovery jog)
* Cool-down

How much ‘easier’ did that second set of 200’s feel once you were back down on the track? Compared to the hill blasts you probably felt like you dropped the sandbags you were carrying. Strength from hills = speed for flats. If you don’t have a track next to a hill you could do this on the treadmill and adjust the grade.

track runner

hill power = track speed

Short hill repeats are just one example. Even doing your ‘easy’ days on hillier routes will build up those quads. With anything in your training you want variety, so mix it up. Doing a tempo run uphill is a go-to workout for the Hudson Training Systems group; Coach Brad Hudson stresses that here the focus is not so much on the actual splits but effort.

Long hill repeats…back to pothole, podunk track we’d do track/hill/track combo workouts anywhere up to 800 meters on the hill. That’s the longest this particular hill was, but that’s hardly stopping anyone from finding a longer hill. Back to Wardian, who actually does a lot of his training on a treadmill, he likes to do repeats of 3 miles in length; he ramps the incline up each mile starting at a 4% and ending at 8%.

The thing you do have to be very careful about in running hill repeat type workouts is running the downhills which is really tough on the knees in particular. Go really easy and keep in mind if you’re doing a long run with lots of rolling hills or downhills your quads can get mighty sore from the downhill portions…you may not think that would be the case!

With anything, practice makes perfect and there is a technique to running uphill. (Downhill too, but for brevity sake I’ll cover that in another post) Don’t let yourself hunch over; stand tall, if you feel your shoulders up in your ears, shake out your arms and relax.

Keep your eyes locked up and to the summit, that helps with staying tall, and be sure to power through the top and up over the crest. Don’t stop right before the top because you’ll break all the momentum you built up…you want to use the momentum to keep you moving and then fly back down the backside. (If you’re racing that helps a lot! What goes up must go down.)

So don’t be like Jack, follow Jill and tackle that hill. Then when it is track time you’ll feel that much faster.

1) Do you like running hills? Do you consider yourself a hill runner?
I tend to do a little better on flats…I need to build up some quad strength!

2) What kinds of hill workouts or runs do you do, if any? Do you do treadmill incline workouts?

3) Do you live near hilly trails or running routes? If not, how do you simulate hills?

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21 thoughts on “Get Faster by Getting Stronger Running Hills – Build Strength to Gain Speed

  1. I like running on hills!
    When my sister and I race together I make up dirty rhymes and run in front of her to get her to chase me and make it up the hill without thinking about it 🙂
    Sometimes I think she wishes that she was adopted….

  2. I can’t say I loooove hill workouts, but I definitely think they are so beneficial. They are really difficult and just feel good to complete!! I mean, even just reaching the crest of the hill feels great, but remembering not to kill it on the down hill can be just as difficult as running the uphill. I’d love to try the track-hill-track workout you mentioned!

  3. great post!!! I freaking love hill workouts. yes I am weird. I totally want to try that hill/track workout too, actually now I think about it, my high school sits on top of a hill so I could totally use that track! can i just fast forward a couple weeks to when i’m ready to do workouts again? hahaha. Near my house there really aren’t any great hills – hill workout days have to be days where I drive to a running location. Where I went to school though, we had some beastly hills! didn’t make the local races all that fun, but I pretty much never had to do a formal hill workout….I got one on every single run, hehe.

  4. Awesome post!! I like the workout idea.
    I would say of the two, I am probably a hill runner– that being said, I usually have to force myself into them. However, I am pretty lucky in that most of my routes include hills, so I automatically get hill training that way. When I want an intentional hill workout, I have a place that is perfect for it. A nice long hill with switchbacks– just go up and down.
    I use the incline on the TM as well, but usually out of boredom more than anything else. 🙂

  5. Can’t say I love hills, but there is no option in the routes around my house. No matter which direction I go, there are hills. Fortunately, I live in a valley, so I always start uphill and end downhill. I couldn’t imagine if the reverse were true.

  6. I have yet to do hill repeats other than on the tready….but I do run trails and such with huge hills in them. I want to get stronger as a runner though so I will try some of these out! thanks so much for all your awesome posts Cait! xo

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  8. Hills are the best form of greeting faster. After 20 years of training and many clients, they can all tell you they improved drastically on the flat. Hit those hills.

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