Training in a Time of Uncertainty: Using Hill Workouts for Base-Phase Skill Development

May 19, 2021

As we deal with postponements and cancellations of our favorite races from local 5Ks to the Boston Marathon, why lament the lack of races and let that reduce your motivation?  Why not instead make this an opportunity for better preparation than ever when you eventually get on a start line?  All of us runners realize it takes months and years to reach our full potential — not days or weeks.  So why not do the things now — when you are freed from the burden of a race-date-imposed training cycle — that will help you reach new heights later?

One key tool is hill work.  What legendary marathoner Frank Shorter called speed work in disguise.  Nothing lays the foundation for improvements in power, form, and efficiency like hills.

Let’s look at a few example hill workouts you can use now:

First are hill sprints. 

These are eight to ten second maximum uphill efforts.  Since you can’t run at maximum velocity on an incline these aren’t pure speed efforts, but they are mechanically safer than running hard on a track.  Plus, you’ll develop strength, efficiency, and explosiveness.  Use a hill with six percent to eight percent grade and completely recover between repetitions.  An optimal setup would be a short hill up to a level field where you can jog easy for two to three minutes on the flat, then down the hill, and repeat.  And by using a loop setup you can get your easy mileage for the day in between hill reps.  If a loop course isn’t available to you, try slowly walking back down the hill you are sprinting to allow for proper recovery.  

You could use hill sprints once weekly during your base.  As you develop and improve you might work up to as many eight to ten reps.

Next are short-to-medium length hills. 

These are the traditional length most of us associate with hill training, ranging from twenty to sixty seconds.  The grade can be slightly less steep than your hill sprints.  Envision an exit ramp off the highway and you have the perfect incline.  Here in the Upstate, my favorite recommendation for short-to-medium hill work is the stretch up N. Main St. in Downtown Greenville between Park and Stone Avenues.  

Your pacing here may vary with distance.  At the shorter end of this range try running mile effort while if you’re going a minute uphill attempt 5K effort.  Paces and numbers of repeats can evolve over time.  For instance, eight times sixty seconds uphill is a very valuable and challenging base phase workout.  You could do each of those reps at 5K effort with an easy jog back down the hill for recovery.  As that workout progresses over a number of weeks you might eventually try ten times sixty seconds uphill at 5K effort.  Or you might continue with eight times sixty seconds, but create a faster, more powerful effort by using 3K effort.  A third option would be continuing with the same eight times sixty seconds uphill at 5K effort workout, but notice that you are covering more ground with less effort.  This is also a positive sign of growth.  Doing the same workout but with less exertion can be a powerful confidence builder in your training.

Finally, long hills

These can range from two to four minutes on a similar grade as our previous hill variety or slightly more gentle.  I love these as strength work in preparation for a marathon cycle or cross country season.  A favorite early preparation cross country workout: Three to four by three to four minutes gradually uphill at 10K effort.  10K to Half Marathon effort is an excellent zone for getting the appropriate work here and serves as threshold development work as well.  

Be creative with your hill workout combinations.  If you have a hilly loop nearby create a fartlek-style circuit, charging the ups and coasting the flats and downs.  Or work toward a blend of alternating long and short to medium hills.  For example, famed Australian coach Nic Bideau, prescribes eight total hills alternating three minutes up and one minute up.  If you are near a hill that crests from both sides this could be a perfect opportunity.  Run the longer or more gradual incline side for three minutes, jog over the top and down the opposite side, turn around, and attack back up for one minute.

Sprinkle these hill workouts like seasoning into your aerobic base running, progress the difficulty over the course of this autumn, and you’ll be ready to accomplish your goals when races return!

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