Early-Season Hill Work Equals Race Day Speed

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Lance Watson gives specific hill workouts to incorporate into your early-season training plan.

For years I have been advocating hill run training to my athletes. While training in the hills is valuable all year round, it is particularly useful early in your annual preparation to gain strength and muscular endurance. Propelling your body weight upward against gravity increases the load on your muscles. It also emphasizes the drive phase of the run stride (the segment of your stride that begins when your foot is directly below your center of gravity and continues through to point at which you toe-off and your foot leaves the ground).

Another benefit of running uphill is the reduction of impact on the lower leg bones (the tibia and fibula) and ankle and knee joints compared to running on level ground. Obviously, the impact is exponentially greater when you’re running down hills, but hill sets that emphasize a hard uphill section with a gentle jog back down can mitigate this factor. That said, your muscles are not only active movers of your body but also function as shock absorbers that protect your bones and joints, so there is significant value to running downhill more aggressively, to enhancing their shock absorbing capacity, as your legs adapt to the stress.

In addition, hill training boosts muscular endurance in the calves, hamstrings and hip flexors, which contributes to strength, endurance and structural stability and prepares you for faster running as you move closer to the race season. This durability also helps you run well off the bike on tired legs.

To reap these benefits, do the following three hill sessions for six to eight weeks during your early-season training.

Classic hill reps

Perform this session once a week or once every two weeks. Run on a 4- to 8-percent incline. The grade must be reasonable and not so steep that you can’t run with rhythm. The effort should be steady, and not too intense. The idea is to build strength without working toward a race effort. Stay below your anaerobic-threshold heart rate (your AT heart rate corresponds to the pace at which you would typically run a 10K).

After a good warm-up, do 10-25 minutes of hill work, as described below.

  • Your first two to three sessions should involve shorter hills and more rest. Keep your heart rate 10-15 beats below threshold. Example: 5-15 x 1-2 minutes uphill, with 100 percent rest (one minute of rest for every one minute uphill; two minutes of rest for every two minutes uphill).
  • Over your next two to three sessions, work toward longer hills at a sustained effort. Let your heart rate rise to within five to 10 beats below AT and perform 4-8 x 3-5 minutes uphill with 75 percent rest.

RELATED: Run For The Hills And Become A Better Runner

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Treadmill hills

Perform this session once a week or once every two weeks, alternating it with the classic hill reps session described above. Treadmill hill sessions are good for athletes living in colder climates and are useful for shorter-rest hill sets, as you can simply step off the treadmill to recover. Put the treadmill grade at 6-8 percent. Think of this workout as an uphill tempo-run effort with periods of rest.

After a good warm-up, perform the following:

  • Your first two to three sessions should be shorter, controlled efforts on short rest.  Let your heart climb from 10-15 beats below AT to five to 10 beats below. For example, perform 10-15 x 1 minute uphill with 50 percent rest (30 seconds of rest for every one minute uphill). Do 10-15 minutes of total work.
  • For your next two to three sessions, increase both the hill length and the duration of the set while maintaining pace and grade. Let your heart rate rise to five beats below threshold. Do 15-25 minutes of work as 10-15 x 1.5-2 minutes uphill with 50 percent rest.

RELATED – One-Hour Workout: Head For The Hills, Inside

Hill workouts can be done outdoors or on a treadmill. Photo: Nils Nilsen/XTERRA

Hilly base run

Perform this session once per week. Start with 10-15 minutes of easy running on level ground to warm up. The middle 75 percent of the run should be over hilly terrain. Your heart rate can climb to 15-25 beats below AT. Choose a route with hills of varying length and grade. Trails are a great choice if they are available. Overall, keep the effort aerobic and in control. This should be your weekly long run. Gradually increase it from 45-60 minutes up to 90 minutes to two hours.

RELATED: Kettlebells + Hill = Killer Workout

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level.