While hill repeats have been a mainstay on the workout rotation for runners for decades, there actually isn’t an abundance of academic research on the practice. New research, however, is changing that, proving it to be well worth the effort.
A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning sought to make a connection between treadmill intervals at an incline and running economy. Researchers compared three groups of runners: one group that performed 4–6 high-intensity treadmill intervals for an average of 2 minutes and 16 seconds with no incline, one group that performed 10–14 30-second high-intensity intervals at a 10 percent incline, and a control group who continued with their regular running routines. They found that both interval groups similarly improved aspects of running economy during the six-week study.
Another study published just last year in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance had a group of runners perform six weeks of high-intensity uphill running intervals, discovering that not only did running economy improve, but they were 2 percent faster, on average, in 5K time-trial performances.
While this is good news any time of year, winter is the optimal season to incorporate this type of workout. Even better for athletes in the colder climes, it can most easily be done on a treadmill.
Carrie Barrett, a USAT-certified coach at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy in Texas, points to two main benefits of doing uphill repeats in the off-season. The most obvious is strength and power.
“These short bursts of effort increase muscular endurance by improving neuromuscular responsiveness,” she explains. “Several muscle groups fire at once, increasing blood volume to these large muscles.”
Additionally, she cites enhancements in breathing, posture, cadence and efficiency as other positive side effects. And, thanks to the emphasis on horizontal propulsion, this type of workout improves economy by dampening vertical bouncing on the run.
To fully harness these benefits, an athlete must pay special attention to his or her running form when completing uphill intervals. Barrett works with her athletes on adopting a slight forward lean that stems from the ankles rather than the hips. She also encourages a high cadence and working on striking underneath the hips as you drive up the hill.
“Most of the time, I emphasize proper form over speed up the hill in order to get athletes to really visualize what they are doing,” she says. “One of the keys to running efficiency is minimizing the ground contact time, and proper hill running with a high cadence and good form helps with that.”
Hill repeat training plan
Research indicates that just six weeks of hill repeats can make a difference in running performance. Here is a sample workout progression that can be done on a treadmill or outside, usually incorporating a hill workout once per week. Remember to start with an easy warm-up of 10–15 minutes and complete the repeats with increasing intensity from bottom to top.
4–5 1-min repeats on a 4% grade hill, full jogging recovery between each
5–6 1-min repeats on a 4% grade hill, full jogging recovery between each
4–6 90-sec repeats on a 4–5% grade hill, full jogging recovery between each
4–6 2–3-min repeats on a 4–5% grade hill, full jogging recovery between each
6–8 2–3-min repeats on a 4–6% grade hill, full jogging recovery between each
8–10 2–3-min repeats on a 4–6% grade hill, full jogging recovery between each