Hills: A Runner’s Friend or Foe?

When talking to runners about hills, there are usually only two responses, “love them” or “hate them.” There is no in-between. Here’s my take on hills, how they are beneficial, and why every runner should incorporate hills into their workout in some fashion.

Hills are speed work in disguise. If you would like to increase your pace, good old-fashioned speed work is key, but HILLS are the clincher. If you can power up a good hill, building your VO2 max and strengthening those glutes, think about how fast you’ll fly on a flat course. 

There are two key ways to do hill workouts. One is adding a route to your running routine that has a variety of hills (e.g., rolling, steep and short, and long and steady incline) or simply completing hill repeats. 

Let’s discuss the first. There are plenty of benefits to your training by running on a flat course (e.g., less strain on your Achilles tendons, easier on your joints, and easier endurance runs), but by adding one hilly run, once a week, or even every other week, you’ll quickly notice those flatter runs going a lot quicker. 

Choose a short route with a variety of hills—short is relative to your personal mileage—but don’t dive into a long-mileage hilly route if you’re not presently running hills. This means the route should contain one of each of the following: 

  • A short, steep climb (50 – 100 feet of elevation)
  • A long, steady climb of elevation
  • Rolling hills (up down/up down in succession)

Try integrating this route into your training run schedule 1x a week to start (if you run 3 – 4x a week) and build up to 2x a week. A hilly run should be followed by a flatter terrain run on your next outing. 

Another way to incorporate hill work into your routine is to do hill repeats. Find a hill with at least .1 of a mile incline of 5 – 10%. In other words, the incline should be a steep, quick climb that is NOT easy for you to run up. You SHOULD be out of breath running up the hill. Start out at the bottom of the hill, then run up the hill at a good effort. Don’t walk up—run. Walk or jog back down the hill. Your goal should be to complete 10 hill repeats. A good starting point would be to complete four reps at a good effort. You can incorporate the hill repeats on a day you do a short run, a cross-training/strength day, or on their own.

If you are restricted to treadmill running and want to incorporate hill work, set the incline for a gradual rise, increasing it 1% each .25 mile for two miles, then a flat mile. Or sprint up a 6 – 10% incline for .1 to .3 of a mile and a slow-flat, slow-recovery jog for the same distance. Repeat 10x.

You may not immediately like hills after including this workout into your routine, but once you start seeing the results in your increased speed, you just might start to love them after all.

Happy running!

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