A healthy dose of hill running is some of the most productive training you can do. There is no doubt that runners who regularly hill train get faster. For best results you should vary your hill routines and workouts throughout the season; just as you should vary your other types or training and phases. Hill work is more stressful and must be implement prescriptively. Progression is important as it is easy to overdo it.
Treadmill vs. Road
I am often asked which is "better"- running outdoors or running on a treadmill. The answer is that they both have their place in a good running plan. The treadmill has advantage in that you can set your workout parameters more precisely. If you are trying to keep your heart rate down during base training, you simply dial a pace that keeps your heart rate in the prescribed zone. On the treadmill you can also dial in the incline to create just the right amount of stress for your workout. Outdoors It may be hard to find a long hill with a steady incline that the treadmill can create perfectly.Be cautious to not start off your hill work with too much incline. A better course of action is to increase the incline slightly each week while keeping the pace constant. One liability of the treadmill is that some athletes find it difficult to stay focused and boredom quickly sets in. An important part of training is to include runs on varied terrain and downhill running that the treadmill cannot provide. For this reason I recommend avoiding all of your training on the treadmill. As you get closer to your goal race try to duplicate or approximate the elevation and terrain of your race course; and spend less time on the treadmill.
Hill Running Progression
One of the more important components of base training is staying aerobic, meaning keeping your heart low enough to train your aerobic energy system which is the most efficient. Hills are stressful and will obviously drive your heart rate up, but that does not mean hill training needs to be eliminate in base or aerobic phase of training. This in fact may be the best time to build a strength endurance base for the coming season. As the season progresses intensity of training generally follows. The following workouts are in a more general order of training progression. You may notice I use the word "progression" a lot as it is very important to prevent over-training and/or injury.
Sustained Hill Climbing: Hill walking to run faster? Correct; even my fastest and most seasoned runners can benefit from hill walking. Sustained walking on a steep incline gets your heart rate up just as much, or even more than, a slow run. There is less impact and eccentric load while running and risk of injury to the calf/achilles chain is greatly reduced. Hill walking is a great way to strengthen the gluteals, hamstrings, and calf muscles in a run specific way. I generally prescribe hill walking during transition phase or early base training phase. I also recommend trail hiking, perhaps with a lightly weighted pack, and find my athletes really enjoy this low stress/pressure type of training as a hiatus from highly structured workouts.
Hill Intervals for Base/Endurance: These intervals are a bit more structured. I initiate the athlete at a low base or aerobic level and bump it up to a higher aerobic level towards the end of the training phase. This workout is more analogous to a general preparation period, but can be used season long. Typical interval parameters are 5-15 minutes with 5-10 minutes of recovery between efforts, up to two times per week. Pace and incline need to be adjusted to keep heart rate in zone, and I advise a slower pace and higher incline if the athlete is acclimated to it. This may mean running slow with a feel of resistance in the legs. A good work out for the treadmill, but these intervals an definitely be performed outdoors with a little planning.
Steady State Hill Intervals: We now narrow the intensity to the top of your aerobic heart rate zone and hold it for longer periods. Because this workout is more precise, it is again easier to perform on the treadmill. I generally prescribe steady state hill intervals of 5-20 minutes with 5-10 minutes of recovery between efforts, up to two times per week.
Fartlek Hill Workout: One of my favorite athletes' favorite workouts. This requires a hilly course in which you will push moderately hard to very hard on the ascending sections while running a relaxed or recovery pace on the downhill. This is not a highly structured workout and is best performed outdoors or on trails. Fartlek hills build strength, power, and aerobic capacity.
Tempo Hill Intervals: These hill intervals are performed at a much faster pace with heart rate slightly below threshold or your 5k race pace. I generally assign intervals of 5-10 minutes in duration with longer recovery periods of at least 10 minutes. This workout being more stressful, and requiring more recovery should be done no more than once per week. You may also add a 10 second sprint to the end of each interval just as you approach the apex of the hill. Suitable for a treadmill but generally better performed outdoors.
Hill Bounding: Hill bounding is better visualized and demonstrated therefore I advise viewing some videos. Bounds require a springing motion with a focus on vertical power (note this is not how you want to direct your energy while running). Visualize leaping from rock to rock as you cross a roiling stream attempting to keep above the water. Utilize a long bounding/leaping stride as you climb a hill, and work on producing a quick, explosive, powerful movement. Hill bounds can be 50-75 meters in length and recovery is just a slow walk back down the hill. Usually 4-8 of these are enough for most runners. Incorporate this workout no more than once per week.
Hill Sprinting: This highly stressful hill speed work has no heart rate or pace prescribed. Using a moderate hill of approximately 100 meters, start off at an endurance pace and build to an all out sprint as hard as you can in the last ten seconds cresting the hill. Prescribed no more than 2 times per month and generally in race prep period. These may be performed in several sets of 3-4 hill sprints, with recovery between sets of 10-15 minutes of easy running. Recovery between each efforts should be slow walk back down the hill.
Hill Striding: A technique drill to address inefficiencies in hill running form. Many runners slow their stride rate and lengthen their stride as they attempt to over-power up a hill, when in fact the exact opposite should take place. Counting your strides uphill, your stride rate should be around 30 right foot strides in 20 seconds. Work on a short, fast, efficient uphill stride with a focus on turn over. The arms provide lift when running uphill- utilize them in conjunction with your legs. A good way to initiate this drill is to run uphill with excessively fast arm motion as your legs will have to follow! Perform hill strides in all periods throughout the season as there is never a bad time to improve form.
Remember that hill work is much more stressful than running flat. Increase incline gradually (progression again) and to let your body adapt over time. When experiencing any calf or Achilles area pain, stop immediately and take at least a few days off, then do not resume training until you are pain free. Do not attempt to "run through" an injury as this usually only lengthens the time you are injured. Hill work will prevent injury and strengthen your tendons, joints, and ligaments, but only if you do not perform it too often or at a level you are not ready for. You cannot rush fitness, your body is on it's own timeline, and hill work is no exception.
Matt Russ is a professional coach with over two decades of experience working with athletes up to the professional level. His athletes have achieved numerous regional, national, and international titles under his direction. Matt has achieved the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. His accomplishments include being named "Team USA" Coach by USA Triathlon. Matt is Head Coach and owner of The Sport Factory, a USA Triathlon Certified Performance Center located in Roswell, Georgia. Visit www.sportfactory.com for more information or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org