The Four Types of Hill Workouts and How to Run Them

Running hill workout

Hills, depending on how you look at them, can be a runner’s best friend or worst enemy. 

Runners with above average aerobic strength can use hills as a cheat code, blowing by competitors with much faster PRs. More speed-centric runners often struggle with hills, losing ground on inclines at a disproportionate rate.

Regardless of your racing specialty, you should be using hills in training to work on a variety of skills. Hill running offers unique benefits that simply can’t be replicated on flat ground. We will dive into the specifics of those benefits throughout the course of this article.  

When to Use Hills in Training

Most pre-written training plans suggest incorporating hills only during your base phase. I believe this suggestion stems from the inherent lack of nuance in generic approaches. The reality is that while extra hills in base training is a sound idea, hills can be utilized in training year-round for maximum benefit. You simply need to time your workouts correctly and run them in the right doses.

Running efficiently is a skill. Hills provide the perfect stimulus for honing that skill, regardless of where you are in your training cycle. If you’re serious about getting faster, you should constantly be looking for ways to become a more skilled runner, and the right variety of hill workouts can get you there.  

The Four Types of Hills Workouts

There are countless ways to utilize hills in your training, but most hill workouts fall into one of four categories. Read on below to find which hill workout fits into your current training block.

Post-Run Hills as Supplementary Speed Work

There are few training techniques as effective as hill strides at the end of your daily run. In addition to teaching your body to output force on tired legs, post-run hill strides can sharpen your stride as you learn to work against gravity. On hills, your hips are inherently more engaged and you naturally shift away from heel striking. 

Athletes can benefit from post-run hills after most types of training, but my favorite timing is right after moderate runs. If, for example, you have two hard workouts scheduled for Tuesday and Sunday, a moderate day with hills would fall on a Friday, allowing you to get in extra quality work without inhibiting your recovery. You can learn more about the moderate day training concept in this article, which goes into greater detail. 

Post-run hills are more akin to strength training than interval running. You should walk downhill and take extra time to recover so you can output full strength on each incline. You generally want to cap your reps at around 20 seconds. Anything longer gets into interval territory and could interfere with your next day’s training. 

Hill Repeats

Similar to post-run hill strides, dedicated hill repeats are a great way to develop explosiveness and instill proper mechanics into your legs. The only real difference between the two types of workouts is volume. Following runs, your total hill reps should be in the 4-6 range. But in a dedicated hill workout, you can hit as many as 10-15 hills without sacrificing quality. 

Quick hill workouts are a great way to safely introduce faster running during base phases. They can also serve as an excellent tool in increasing power output, particularly for mid-distance runners. 

Hill repeats offer flexibility in your training approach, allowing you to cater your incline, rep duration, and rep total to your specific training goals. Generally, steeper reps (8-12% incline) should be shorter and done more sparingly, given the drastic change in mechanics you’ll need to complete each rep. Hills in the 4-7% incline range allow for more total volume and a stride that translates better to running on flat ground. 

Hill Fartlek

Sometimes, going old school makes sense. Hill fartleks – or surging up hills throughout the course of a run – have been used effectively by runners since the early days of the sport. 

There’s a lot to love about these hybrid workouts, which can fit into just about any part of your training cycle. Just some of the benefits you’ll reap from hill fartleks include:

  • Specific preparation for hills during races
  • Better ability to change speeds and surge mid-run
  • Improved lactate utilization 
  • Mental toughness

There are countless ways to approach hill fartleks, with the speed and duration of your hill bursts depending on that day’s training goals. I personally would incorporate hill bursts into my faster long runs while preparing for marathons. Doing so would allow me to passively work on my mechanics during weeks that were typically dedicated to pure aerobic strength.

Hill Circuits

Whether you don’t have many hills in your area or you’re simply looking to break through a plateau in your training, hill circuits can be the perfect way to reap the benefits of incline running while simultaneously developing full-body fitness. 

In a typical hill circuit, runners will incorporate hill strides as part of a series of other non-running exercises (i.e. burpees, free squats, pushups). For runners who only have access to a small hill in their neighborhood, this type of training is perfect for developing the muscular strength needed to power up hills in races. 

Hill circuits can be a fun change of pace from your regular hill workouts, and they provide unique fitness benefits you won’t get from running alone. I typically like to use hill or stair circuits early on in training cycles. Doing so can “wake up” the body’s top-end energy systems without overtaxing your running muscles. 

Below is an example of a circuit I often give to mid-distance track runners early in their training cycle. The exercises chosen to break up their hills (or in this case, bleacher stairs) fit into their overall strength training plan, which is spaced out throughout the course of the week. 

Set 1: 6 x vertical jumps for height into 400m accelerator (300m @ 5k pace, cutting down to mile pace in last 100m)

Set 2: Burst up bleacher stairs, jog down to track, 400m accelerator 

Set 3: 30 seconds of diamond pushups 

Set 4: 50m of skipping (focus on height and forward motion), 400m accelerator 

Sets 5 and 6: Burst up bleacher stairs, jog down to track, 400m accelerator