A hill workout not only adds variety to your running routine, it's also a great way to burn calories, strengthen your legs and improve your speed.
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"Hill repeats give you a completely different workout to mix up your week. It's short, it's intense and it's over within 20 minutes," Thomas Watson, UESCA-certified coach and founder of Marathon Handbook, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It can bring new perspective to your running fitness and set you on a path of improving your speed."
It's also an excellent way to strengthen your posterior chain (all the muscles along the back of your body), while enjoying the benefits of being outside.
"Running up hills works your leg muscles in a similar way to performing leg day at the gym," Watson says. "Your quads, hips, hamstrings, glutes and calves all get subjected to an intense stressor. Stronger leg muscles means faster running and reduced probability of injury."
And if you're trying to improve your speed, hill running can help you PR. "Hill repeats replicate sprinting by activating the same muscles. Add this in with the strength benefits and you'll improve your running economy, which is basically the miles per gallon you get from your body," Watson says.
Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here — we’ve got something for everyone.
Try This 20-Minute Hill Workout
This 20-minute hill workout is a great addition to your running routine — as long as you incorporate it sparingly.
"You should only perform hill repeats once a week," Watson says. "Any more than that is adding unnecessary stress which may lead to injuries. Mix up your training plan with long runs, easy runs, hill sessions, cross-training and, of course, some days off."
It's important to warm up your muscles and get your body ready for your high-intensity sprints. Watson recommends jogging or walking for five to 10 minutes, preferably on flat ground. Other warm-up options include:
- Light to moderate pace on a bike
- Walking lunges
- High knee walking
- Jumping jacks
The Main Workout
Starting out, you may spend 10 minutes warming up and 5 minutes running hills. Work your way up to a shorter warm-up and 12 to 15 minutes running hills. Start with 3 reps and work your way up 10. (Note: One rep equals running up and down the hill one time.)
- Run uphill for 30 seconds at a 7 out of 10 (exertion level).
- Run, jog or walk downhill for 60 seconds (slow recovery).
- Rest at the bottom only if you feel it's necessary.
- Repeat 3 to 10 times.
“By the time you reach the top, your breathing should be labored,” Watson says. "Turn around and jog (or walk) down the hill at your own pace to recover. When you reach the bottom of the hill, get ready to go again. If your breath is still labored, jog in circles or on the spot until you're ready for the next hill repeat.”
You can also mix up your hill workout with these ideas from American Council on Exercise. An example of 5 sets could include:
- Set 1: Regular full sprint
- Set 2: High knees sprint
- Set 3: Bounding leaps up the hill
- Set 4: Walking or running backward up the hill
- Set 5: Regular full sprint
You made it! Now it's time to cool down and let your breathing and heart rate return to normal. Watson recommends two to five minutes of light jogging or walking.
"Once you're back home, you can add in some foam rolling for recovery," he says.
Adapt This Workout for the Treadmill
For those rainy or cold days, Watson says this workout can be easily adapted for a treadmill.
He recommends setting the incline at 8 to 12 percent to replicate running uphill. Run at a pace that allows you to reach the 7 out of 10 intensity for 30 seconds. Then, reduce the incline back down to 0 to 2 percent and jog for 60 seconds. Start with 3 to 4 reps, and add one rep every time you do the workout.
To challenge yourself, Watson recommends increasing the length of your uphill intervals to 45 seconds, then 60 seconds.
"When you perform this workout on a treadmill, you have to use some trial and error to find the uphill pace that suits you," he says.
Hill Running Tips for Best Results
When running hills, focus on your perceived exertion over speed. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being minimal effort and 10 being maximum effort, Watson says to aim for a 7 out of 10 when running hills. With this exertion, it should be difficult to speak a sentence. If you can easily speak, push yourself harder.
Next up, find the right hill. "There are no hard-and-fast rules on the length and gradient of a hill interval. Often people simply go to the hill closest to their home," Watson says. "Remember it's not necessary to cover the whole hill, especially if it's a large hill."
He recommends selecting an interval of 100 to 200 meters (about one to two football fields long) to start with. As your endurance and strength improves, you can increase the duration of the sprint or the steepness of the hill.
And keep your running form in mind as you run. "As you run uphill, keep your back upright, your core engaged and drive with your knees and elbows," says Watson. "On steeper inclines, shorten your stride and increase your cadence to maintain a good level of intensity."
It's important you wear the right shoes for hill running to prevent injury. If you're running on concrete, paved paths or a treadmill, wear a hybrid or road running shoe, Jovana Subic, head of running research at Run Repeat, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
For those who are running on trails or over rough terrain, Subic recommends trail running shoes that have deeper lubs (or cleats) to give your more stability.