Hill Repeats: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Hill Repeats: The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

A road runner’s worst enemy and a trail runner’s best friend, hill repeats embody Daft Punk’s 2001 smash hit, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”. Harder because you might be a road runner and have gravity working against you. Better because you might be a trail runner and have gravity working against you. Faster because what comes up must come down. And most importantly, stronger because that’s what you become when you do hill repeats!

Hill repeats are as much a strength workout as a speed workout. They not only break down the muscle fibers in your legs to make them stronger, but they put nearly all the muscles in your legs to work. It’s as if you rolled squats, lunges, and calf raises all into one workout while also getting your heart rate up in small spurts. Hill repeats also promote better running form, as it gets you lifting up your knees higher and driving forward so as not to over-stride.

Running up and down a hill a bunch of times — sounds simple and sounds like fun, right?  Seems pretty straightforward, but there is actually a technique and structure that comes along with this seemingly hellish workout!

Let’s take a look at a basic hill workout to start out with:

  • 1-2 mile warm-up at easy, conversational pace on flat ground
  • 5 sets of the following (3-minute cycles):
    • 45-second uphill at 80-90% intensity, just short of a sprint
    • 2:15 rest back down to start, either walking or easy recovery jog
  • 1-2 mile cooldown at easy pace

This is a great introduction to hill repeats, and can similarly be adjusted by sets, interval time, intensity, etc to tailor the workout to a specific race distance. The track runner may bring the time down to 30 seconds but do them more towards 90-95% intensity and do more of these repeats on longer rest. The aspiring ultramarathoner may extend the repeats to 90 seconds at 70%, but do fewer of them on shorter rest.

Touching on the hill itself, one doesn’t go choosing hills to run on all willy nilly. Hill repeats don’t have the luxury of track workouts, in which most tracks will be of similar distance and grade. For hill repeats, some hills are better than others. You need to find one that is practical but challenging — not too steep, but steep enough. You need to feel like you’re working hard, but not necessarily one where you question your decision to even attempt running it. For many, that means hills that average a 5-8% grade (or slope). If the race you’re training for has hills in them, it’s also a good idea to train on hills with similar grades or, if you can, the hills in the race itself.

So, how else can hill repeats help? Many talk about the importance of learning how to run uphill, but not nearly as many think of the benefits of practicing downhill running, which hill repeats also cover.

While it inherently seems easier to run downhill because you have gravity on your side, it does put a larger impact on your body, especially the quads. It also engages many of your core muscles and makes you focus on your running form so as not to fall or have the body take on additional unnecessary stresses. All of these things combined also strengthen other muscles in the body so as to make you an overall more efficient runner.

Hill repeats are one of my favorite exercises not only because I’m a trail runner at heart, but because it provides me the greatest benefits in both strength and speed. They can be tough, but you’ll soon see and feel the accomplishment upon completion. This is one workout you definitely need to add to your arsenal!

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