Hill Sprints: the key to improving strength, power and running speed

Hill Sprints Running Speed

To run fast we need muscles that are strong, powerful and efficient.  And if you’re looking for a time efficient running workout, to develop strength, speed and power, you can’t get much better than hill sprints.

Hill sprints are one of the most effective running workouts for building stronger and more powerful muscles. Developing our running cadence, stride length and ultimately enhancing our running efficiency. And, by strengthening key running muscles and tendons we also reduce injury risk.

So what are hill sprints, and how do they differ from hill repeats? Let’s, take a look.

What are hill sprints?

Simply put, hill sprints are short maximal intensity sprints run up an incline.

Whilst we can choose to run these on a steep (>7%), or moderate incline (4-6%), one factor we shouldn’t alter is the intensity.

For hill sprints to be effective the intensity needs to be maximal. And, to achieve this the sprints need to be short – really short! – only around 8-12secs.

And, that’s where these short intense efforts, differ from short hill repeats.

Hill sprints are the only type of hill running session that’s run at maximum intensity. For once, there’s no attempt to pace these, just run as fast as possible.

Why all runners should include hill sprint workouts?

As endurance runners it can seem counterintuitive to train at this intensity. After all, we’re not sprinters.

However, hill sprints really shouldn’t be underestimated:

“Hill sprints are the most effective hill running workout, for developing maximum running speed, strength, power, cadence and stride length.”

In fact, running at this intensity improves running efficiency, which is a key factor in improving your running performance.

If that wasn’t enough reason to give hill sprints a try, they also reduce injury risk, by strengthening key running muscles and tendons.

Training benefits of hill sprints

  • Increases your maximum running velocity
  • Develops muscle strength and power 
  • Improves maximum running cadence
  • Increases muscle fibre recruitment
  • Lengthens your running stride
  • Increases running efficiency
  • Strengthens tendons
  • Reduces injury risk

So, let’s look at why hill sprints are so beneficial for runners

The science behind hill sprints for runners

Ok, so we’ve looked at how runners can benefit from hill sprints, let’s take a look at why they help to improve our running.

Firstly, we have to consider what happens when you run hill sprints.

  1. You’re running at maximum intensity
  2. Running cadence is close to maximal
  3. There’s added resistance – in the form of gravity
  4. Force per foot-strike is significantly increased
  5. There’s increased muscle fibre recruitment, of slow and fast twitch fibres

They increase strength and power

Hill sprints are one of the best ways to develop strength and power.

In this way, we can think of hill sprints as a very specific form of strength training. In fact, you really can’t get a much more specific form of strength training for runners.

So why do they improve strength and power? Here, the combination of running at maximum intensity, against the added resistance of gravity, increases the force generated per foot strike. This leads to a number of training adaptations that improve the strength and power of muscles.

Firstly, we see an increased recruitment of all muscle fibres – fast and slow twitch. And, the more muscle fibres you use the stronger and more powerful your muscles become.

Secondly, individual muscle fibres become stronger and more fatigue resistant.

Thirdly, we see increased neuromuscular co-ordination. Which increases the ability of your muscles and groups of muscles to produce force efficiently.

Which brings us on to stride length and cadence.

Improved stride length and running cadence

Any increase in strength and power can improve our stride length. Importantly, hill sprints also work the upper limits of our running cadence. So, maximum running cadence is also developed.

Reduced Injury Risk

Stronger more powerful muscles are more resistant to fatigue. They’re also more resistant to injuries.

Hill sprints also strengthen connective tissue and specifically tendons. Not, only do stronger tendons and muscles, mean less risk of injury, it also increases stability and efficiency.

Greater running efficiency

We know from research that hill training can improve efficiency, we also know – perhaps surprisingly – short sprints can help to improve endurance running efficiency.

So, why do hill sprints improve running efficiency?

Hill sprints improve efficiency on a number of levels:

  • There’s improved neuromuscular coordination
  • Our muscles become stronger and more powerful
  • And, stronger muscles and tendons = improved joint stability
  • We also see increased muscle stiffness and improved energy return

How hill sprints make you a faster runner​

As with running efficiency, hill sprints improve running speed on a number of levels:

Firstly, running fast is all about strength, power, and co-ordinated movements.

In this regard, hill sprints make for stronger more powerful muscles and muscle fibres. Meaning that your muscles can generate more force with each contraction.

But, here’s the thing: this doesn’t just make you faster when sprinting, it actually improves endurance running as well. And here’s why…the faster your maximum running speed, the easier it is to run at slower speeds.

Secondly, hill sprints improve neuromuscular co-ordination – essentially, the level of co-ordination between our brain and muscles. This improves both the efficiency and speed of muscular contractions.

In addition, we also see an increase in muscle stiffness, which increases our ability to store and use elastic energy.

So, let’s move onto the interesting part:

How to complete a hill sprint workout

Ok, so now you’re ready to give hill sprints a try.

Quickly, before we start, here’s a few points to help you get the most from these sessions. So, I’ve mentioned a few of these already, but they’re really important, so I’m going to reinforce these key points.

#1 Always include a good warm up

Due to the intensity of these sprints a good warm up is really important. In fact, it’s vital. 

For this session, just jogging for a few miles doesn’t really cut it, we need to make sure our muscles are primed and ready.
 
In an ideal world, we should be including dynamic warm up exercises, drills and accelerations. However, if you’re not familiar with these, then running a series of short accelerations is another option. 
 
For the accelerations, follow this simple formula:
 
  • Include some easy running prior to the accelerations.
  • Run the accelerations on the hill you will be using for the sprints. This keeps the warm up specific to hill running.
  • Run approximately 4-5 x 6-10second accelerations.
  • Build the intensity across each acceleration. For example:
– Acceleration 1 = 70-75% effort
– Acceleration 2 = 75-80% effort
– Acceleration 3 = 80-85% effort
– Acceleration 4 = 85-90% effort
 

#2 They need to be run at maximal intensity

To get the most from this session, hill sprints need to be run at your maximum effort – or, at least very near to it.

Unlike, nearly every other endurance session, we don’t want to be pacing these efforts. There’s no holding back – just run as fast as possible.

This brings us on to point 3.

#3 Don’t be tempted to increase the length of the hills

The good news is they’re only short – around 8-12seconds. And, we want to keep them like that!!

In fact, we need these to be short. Any longer than this and you won’t be running at maximal intensity. So, if you’re used to running longer intervals, or longer hill repeats, then this session will actually feel less fatiguing.

You might even find this a welcome break from your normal endurance training – I know I do!

#4 Recovery is a key factor

As we’re focusing on intensity, we need to prioritise the recovery between efforts. Ideally, we need 2-3minutes of very easy jogging between sprints. 

As endurance runners, it can be tempting to try to reduce the length of the recovery. But that takes us away from the purpose of the session.

When I run these, I even add in an additional minute of complete rest, prior to running each sprint. This helps to keep each effort as intense as possible.

#5 Don’t run hill sprints when your legs are fatigued

Hill sprints are all about speed and power, so to get the most from this session don’t run this when your legs are fatigued. Your legs won’t thank you for it and you’ll limit the training benefit from this session.

With this in mind don’t run hill sprints the day after a harder training session. And, to get the most out of these, try to avoid running these at the end of a run. 

One advantage with this session, is you can run them the day before a harder interval session – once you’ve adapted to hill sprints – and it won’t compromise subsequent training. In fact, many runners find this compliments their interval training.

The Hill Sprint Workout

  1. Ensure you include a good warm. Ideally, including dynamic warm-up exercises, drills and accelerations.
  2. Use a moderately steep incline (~4-8% gradient). A steeper gradient reduces cadence but increases force per foot strike. Whereas, a more moderate gradient allows a faster cadence at the expense of a slightly reduced force per foot strike.
  3. Either mark out a set distance (my preferred option), or, use a countdown timer. Either way, the hill should take no longer than 10-12seconds to complete at maximal intensity.
  4. Some runners find a rolling start useful. For this allow yourself approximately 20m to build pace to top speed.
  5. Allow, 2-3minutes recovery between each interval. Or, as long as is required to maintain the work rate during the hill sprint. You, may find an additional minute of standing recovery is useful for maintaining intensity.
  6. Complete 6-12 hill sprints – depending on your running fitness level, conditioning and training experience.
  7. Ensure you include a good cool down afterwards.

How many sprints should you complete?

This depends on your training experience, conditioning and running fitness.

Anywhere from 6-10reps is effective – the quality (intensity) of these reps is more important than the volume. For me, I typically aim to run 8-10reps. Having said that, there isn’t a huge training difference between completing 6 or 10 reps, providing you run these correctly.

What if you’ve never run these before?

If you’re new to this type of training, then take a few weeks to gradually build up the intensity, and allow your body to adapt.

Here’s an example 6-week progression for someone new to hill sprints:

  • 1st Week: 2-4 reps x 6-8 second hill sprints (85-90% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
  • 2nd Week: 4-6 reps x 6-8 second hill sprints (90-95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
  • 3rd Week: 4-6 reps x 8-10 second hill sprints (90-95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
  • 4th Week: 4-6 reps x 8-10 second hill sprints (>95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
  • 5th Week: 6-8 reps x 8-10 second hill sprints (>95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
  • 6th Week: 6-8 reps x 10-12 second hill sprints (>95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery

How many sessions should you include per week?

Again, this varies depending on your training experience, as well your training focus and running goals. For most runners, one weekly session of hill sprints is effective.

Although, two weekly sessions can work well in the early phases of training. Especially as part of the build-up/preparation for more intense training phases.

Later in training phases, you may find that one session every two weeks is sufficient for maintenance of strength, power and speed.

An important factor, with hill sprints, is that they work best when included consistently. Why is that? In short, they’re an important session for long term development. As such, they should feature throughout the training year.

When should you include hill sprint workouts?​

As mentioned earlier, don’t run these the the day after a more intense session. You, won’t hit full intensity and the hill sprints will be less effective.

If you’re not used to this level of intensity, then be cautious initially, and leave 1-2 easier days either side of the hill sprints.

If you’ve got a good level of running conditioning, you should recover quickly from these workouts. In fact, you should feel well recovered by the next day. In this way, hill sprints can be effective when included the day before an aerobic interval, or threshold/tempo run session.

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