Hill Training

September 12, 2023


What it does for you

In hill running, the athlete is using their body weight as a resistance to push against, so the driving muscles from which their leg power is derived have to work harder.

The technique to aim for is a "bouncy" style where the athlete has a good knee lift and maximum range of movement in the ankle. They should aim to drive hard, pushing upwards with their toes, flexing their ankle as much as possible, landing on the front part of the foot and then letting the heel come down below the level of the toes as the weight is taken. This stretches the calf muscles upwards and downwards as much as possible and applies resistance which overtime will improve their power and elasticity. The athlete should look straight ahead, as they run (not at their feet) and ensure their neck, shoulders and arms are free of tension.

Hill work results in the calf muscles learning to contract more quickly and thereby generating work at a higher rate, they become more powerful. The calf muscle achieves this by recruiting more muscle fibres, around two or three times as many when compared to running on the flat. The "bouncy" action also improves the power of the quads in the front of the thigh as they provide the high knee lift that is required.

Hill training offers the following benefits:

  • helps develop power and muscle elasticity
  • improves stride frequency and length
  • develops co-ordination, encouraging the proper use of arm action during the driving phase and feet in the support phase
  • develops control and stabilisation as well as improved speed (downhill running)
  • promotes strength endurance
  • develops maximum speed and strength (short hills)
  • improves lactate tolerance (mixed hills)

The benefits of short, medium and long hills are quite different, and can be used at different times of the year.


Examples of Hill Running Sessions

Short hills

A short hill is one which takes no more that 30 seconds to run up and has an inclination between 5 and 15 degrees gradient. The athlete's energy source on short hills is entirely anaerobic. The athlete should focus on a running technique which has vigorous arm drive and high knee lift, with the hips kept high, so that they are 'running tall', not leaning forwards.

The session is anaerobic so the recovery time can be long, a walk back down the hill, or a slow jog of 60 to 90 seconds.

Short hills of 5 to 10 second duration will help improve the Adenosine Triphosphate and Phosphate-creatine (ATP+PC) energy system and hills of 15 to 30 second duration will help develop the ATP+PC+muscle glycogen energy system. Example of short hill sessions:

  • 8 to 10 repetitions over 50 metres (sprinters and hurdlers)
  • 8 to 10 repetitions over 40 metres (jumpers and throwers)
  • 8 to 10 repetitions over 150 metres (middle distance athletes)
  • 8 to 10 repetitions over 200 metres (long distance athletes)


Medium hills

A medium hill is one that takes between 30 to 90 seconds to run up. This is the length of hill is a good distance for the middle-distance runner, because it combines the benefits of the short hills with the stresses on local muscular endurance and tolerance of lactic acid. Use a hill as steep of one in six to one in ten, so that you can run at something near race pace. The energy source is both aerobic and anaerobic and the athlete will experience the build up in blood lactate as they go further up the hill.

Although the session will usually be quite fast and competitive, it is important that style is emphasised. Scuttling up the hill with a short stride and forward lean may be the best way to get up in a race, but in training, we are trying to develop particular qualities. It is better, therefore, to go for a longer stride and higher knee lift: running tall with the hips pushed forwards, keeping the back upright. Again, the volume of the session depends on the individual.

 The recovery is a slow jog back to the bottom, and when the times start falling much below those of the first few runs, or the technique starts to be affected by fatigue, it is time to stop.

Long hills

A long hill is one which takes from 90 seconds to three minutes plus. Here most of the energy comes from aerobic sources, but if parts of the hill are steep and they are running them hard, there will still be an accumulation of blood lactate. There will be local muscular fatigue in the leg muscles, and possibly in the abdominal muscles too, but the main limiting factor will be the athlete's cardiovascular system 

These hills can be used in two ways:

  • as a hard aerobic training session during the pre-competition season
  • as a hard time-trial session in the early part of the competition period

As these hill sessions are aerobic, the athlete will not use as much power per stride as the shorter hills, and so perhaps would not be used by middle-distance runners, except for one or two time-trial runs. They are particularly good for the cross country or road runner who is running distances of 10,000m and upwards. A session of, say eight three minutes, with a run back of four or five minutes will make a good hard workout.


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