Tempo Hill Intervals

Tempo hill intervals are a variation of short hill intervals that get around the problem of the long recoveries. You will get all the same benefits of improved muscular strength, running economy, muscular endurance, and both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism that you get with other types of hill training. However, you will be placing more emphasis on aerobic metabolism and the lactate threshold and it should lead to greater improvements in distance racing performance. Tempo hill intervals also better prepare you for undulating terrain in a race situation.

The basic idea of tempo intervals is to maintain a high work rate, throughout the workout. This is done by running the recoveries at a steady pace rather than the usual very easy paced jog recovery. To be able to run the recoveries at a faster rate you must also slow the effort down slightly. Tempo hill intervals work well with hills that take in the region of 20-60seconds to run up and are moderately steep (~4-6% gradient). The real difference between tempo hills and standard hill intervals, is that the recoveries should only take ~5secs longer than the uphill effort so the overall intensity remains relatively high. Aim for ~5secs longer, regardless of whether you are running these over a 20sec or 60sec hill. The 5 second differential doesn’t sound much, however, when running downhill you have the assistance of gravity, so the idea is that you are just getting enough recovery to allow you to maintain a good (above lactate threshold) pace on the up hills.

The intensity for the uphill section should be above 10k intensity if you’re running these in the region of 50-60secs. However, with shorter hills this intensity can be increased slightly further. The key is to find an intensity that can be maintained over 20-30minutes of continuous tempo hills – this can either be run as one continuous session or broken into smaller intervals e.g. 3 x 10mins of tempo hills separeted by 3-5mins of easy running.

Recently, I have switched more to running these over shorter hills (~20-25secs) as I find these allow me to maintain a higher overall intensity on the uphills, whilst the shorter recovery (25-30secs compared with 60-65secs for a 55-60sec hill) maintains a high overall intensity, with a less significant drop in heart rate during the recovery.

In terms of heart rate you should reach around 85-90% HR max after the first repetition and this should be as high as 90-95% HR max by the last few repetitions. You will find that your heart rate will not recover as much during the downhill recovery, as during traditional hill repetitions, and should only drop to around 80-85% HR max at the bottom of the hill, although this depends on your level of fitness, and the length of the hill – using shorter hills (e.g. 25-30secs) will generally keep the heart rate higher during the recovery, as the length of recovery is not enough to allow the heart rate to decrease as much, as when using slightly longer hills. Also athletes with a higher level of aerobic fitness, can generally maintain a higher percentage of max heart rate on both the efforts and recoveries.

In the chart below you can see my heart rate during 25mins of short hill tempos (total of 31 hill reps at an average of 22.3sec uphill, 25.4sec downhill). As you can see there is only a small difference between high and low heart rates during the uphill and downhill sections. Interestingly, although the heart can be seen to start to recover during the downhills, the actual average heart rate was higher during the downhill recoveries than the uphill efforts (174 vs 171bpm). This is due to the delayed heart rate response to both increasing and decreasing workrate.

Heart rate during short hill tempo running

I find this session a great way to work on strength, speed, and run cadence as well as working at an average intensity that works both aerobic capacity and the lactate threshold.

Aim to complete around 20mins of hill tempos, and gradually increase this to 25-30minutes. This can be completed as one continuous effort or split into 2-3 intervals e.g. 2 x 15mins or 3 x 10mins.

The session works well with hills that take between 20-60secs to run – shorter hills allow a slightly higher intensity to be maintained on the uphills, longer hills increase muscular fatigue during the repetition and a greater level of recovery during the downhill section.

Tempo hill intervals summary

  • Tempo hill intervals is a variation of short hill intervals in which the downhill section is run at a steady pace
  • As with other running hill training sessions tempo hill intervals can lead to improved muscular strength/endurance, running economy, and both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. However the average intensity of the workout is higher (around the lactate threshold intensity) and can lead to improvements in the lactate threshold.
  • Tempo hill intervals involve running up a moderate slope that takes ~20-60 seconds to run up at pace above the lactate threshold. The downhill section should be run at a steady pace and should only take around 5 seconds longer than the uphill effort.
  •  Begin with 20mins of continuous hills and increase to 25-30mins.