Why hills?

At the end of every season for my DBU Cross Country and Track teams I look back on the training that we did and the results and performances that came from that training.

I also do this with the post-collegiate athletes that I coach, but since their training is usually online it’s not as easy to analyze their training efforts…but, regardless, it’s still a great practice for all coaches and athletes.

Generally, we can find threads that lead to stellar performances and threads that lead to performances that we were not as pleased with. And from this, we can make adjustments leading into the next training and racing cycle.

This year, and most years, I came away completely convinced of the power and effectiveness of hill training. If you are not including hills (in some capacity — see below) in your training, then I believe that you are missing out!!!

I believe that it was Frank Shorter that said, “Hills are speed work in disguise…” and he was right, BUT THEY ARE SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT!!!

We run hills in three different manners. Not everyone trains in the environment that we train in, but here are the ways that we use hills and when we use them, and if you have the opportunity to adopt these into your training, then I highly encourage you to do so!!!

  1. Hilly runs. For my XC teams, we will assign once per week a ‘hilly’ run in the summer time. This is the summer base phase, where we are not doing many structured workouts…but mainly trying to build their aerobic base and so assigning a hilly run fits perfectly into that routine. So, what is a hilly run? It’s simple an easy run over a hilly course. I try to encourage the hills to be somewhat rolling and not very steep, but use what you have. The goal here is to keep the same ‘easy’ effort going UP the hills as you would run on the flatter portions of the run. This is great introductory work for the other hill sessions that I have planned for my team; and I believe that it does a great work in developing muscular strength and adds a better aerobic component to the run than if you were just running easy on the flats.
  2. Hilly long runs. Again, this is something that we’ll assign in the summer base training phase, but also carry throughout the early part of our season. Typically, I like to keep the hilly long runs in the training cycle for at least two-thirds of the training cycle. You don’t want to stop these too early because you’ll lose the effectiveness of them if so…but you also want to time it to where you are sharpening up and getting fresh in time for the goal races. For my marathoners, I also like to schedule these every other week early in the training cycle and then every 3rd or 4th long run in the specific phase of marathon training. So, what is a hilly long run? Simply, just an extension of the hilly run…run over a longer duration of time…at least 12 miles and up to 18 miles.
  3. Hill repetitions. Once you’ve gotten in your ‘aerobic’ base, I think it’s time to transition into some actual structured hill repetitions. For my college teams I will assign either 300 meter or 400 meter hill repetitions, but for my online clients I will assign 1 min hill repetitions. I do this because we have a great hill in our training environment that can be measured at 300-400 meters…while my online clients might not have a hill that measures that long. These hill repetitions are not hill sprints…in fact, I tend to assign the first few repetitions to be pretty relaxed, with the goal of getting faster throughout the workout. We’ll typically running 10-12 repetitions for most people, with my higher mileage and higher level athletes running as many as 16 repeats. For our college-aged and younger athletes we do hills during the first 4-6 weeks of a season and for our older runners I will assign hills every other week for nearly the entire training cycle. I think these repetitions for older runners is great for injury prevention, muscular maintenance, and speed work in disguise!

So, why hills?


My collegiate cross country teams had phenomenal years and had some pretty amazing performances early AND late in the season…but those early performances all came off of hill work…and at the end of the year, when they were still running strong, most of my athletes attributed that to the hills that they did in the summer and in the early training season!!!

It’s SIMPLE, but as we’ve said before…SIMPLE AIN’T EASY.

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