How Hill Sprints Improve Strength, Power and Running Speed

Hill Sprints Running Speed

To run fast we need muscles that are strong, powerful and efficient. And that’s where hill sprints come in…

  • Hill sprints are one of the most effective running workouts for building stronger and more powerful muscles.
  • They help to develop running cadence, stride length and running efficiency.
  • And, by strengthening key running muscles and tendons they help to reduce injury risk.

So what are hill sprints, and how do they differ from hill repeats?…

What are hill sprints?

Put simply, they are short intense sprints run up an incline.

While we can choose to run these on a steep (>8%), or moderate incline (6-8%), one factor we shouldn’t alter is the intensity.

To be effective the intensity needs to be either maximal, or very close to maximal. And, that’s where these short intense efforts, differ from short hill repeats.

With this in mind we can divide hill sprints into two main types:

  1. Maximal hill sprints
  2. Speed endurance hill sprints

So, how do these two sessions differ?

Maximal hill sprints focus purely on running at your maximal effort. They’re very short – ideally lasting for around 8-12seconds – and involve running at maximal running speed or intensity. 

Speed endurance hill sprints involve slightly longer efforts, which brings in a speed endurance component. However, it’s important that these aren’t too long, so you don’t compromise the intensity of hills. As a general rule, these work well when duration is kept in the region of 20-25seconds. 

We’ll take a closer look at each of these a bit later in this article. 

So, why should you include these?…

Why all runners should include hill sprint workouts?

As endurance runners it can seem counterintuitive to train at sprint intensity. After all, we’re not sprinters and we don’t race at anywhere near this intensity. Yet, we think nothing of training at much lower intensities than race intensity. 

The truth is to achieve your full running potential, it’s important to train across a range of intensities…from easy, right up to maximal. 

So, in the same way that low intensities are beneficial for endurance, so are sprints.

And when it comes to training at high intensities…

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

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

The 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 they are so beneficial for runners

The science behind hill sprints

Ok, so we’ve looked at the benefits, 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.

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

1. They increase strength and power

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

They’re a very specific form of strength training for running. In fact, you really can’t get a much more specific strength training for runners.

So why do they improve strength and power? Here, it’s the combination of running at maximum intensity, combined with added resistance as you work against gravity. This increases the force generated per foot strike, which leads to a number of training adaptations that ultimately improve the strength and power of your muscles and muscle fibres.

Firstly, we see an increased recruitment of all muscle fibres – fast and slow twitch. Why is that important?…(well), 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 work together and produce force more efficiently.

Which brings us on to stride length and cadence.

2. Improved stride length and running cadence

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

3. 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.

4. Greater running efficiency

We know from research that hill training can improve efficiency. It’s also known – perhaps surprisingly – that short sprints can actually help to improve endurance running efficiency.

So, why do they 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 which can lead to improved energy return

5. How hill sprints make you a faster runner

As with running efficiency, they 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 improve the strength of your muscles and muscle fibres. Meaning that your muscles can generate more force with each contraction. And your muscles also become more efficient at generating force.

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

Secondly, they 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. It also improves the level of co-ordination between groups of muscles such as your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors. 

Taken together, this means we can apply force more powerfully, but also with much greater efficiency.

In addition, we also see an increase in muscle stiffness, which increases your muscle and tendons ability to store and use elastic energy. Again this is an important for exercise efficiency.

So, let’s move onto some hill sprint workouts…

How to get the most out of hill sprints

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

Before we take a closer look, here’s a few points to help you get the most from these sessions.

#1 Always include a good warm up

Due to the intensity of these sprints a good warm up is vital.

A good approach is to include dynamic warm up exercises, drills and accelerations. However, if you’re not familiar with these, or lack confidence in including these, then running a series of short accelerations is another option. 
 
For the accelerations, follow this simple formula:
 
  • Include some low intensity 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. Why is that important?…(well) your muscles work slightly differently when running up a gradient, so it’s important that the warm-up reflects this. 
  • 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 Keep the intensity at maximal, or, very close to maximal

To get the most from this session, they need to be run at your maximum effort – or, at least very near to it. There is a slight difference between running maximal and speed endurance hill sprints – which we’ll look at shortly – however, both are kept very close to maximal intensity.

So, unlike nearly every other endurance session, we don’t want to be pacing these efforts, and we’re looking to run these as fast as possible.

This brings us on to point 3.

#3 Keep these short

The good news is they’re only short:

  • Maximal sprints = 8-12seconds
  • Speed endurance hill sprints = ~20-25seconds

In fact, we need these to be short. Any longer than this and you won’t be running at sprint intensity.

And like me, you might even find this a welcome break from your normal endurance training!

#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 each maximal sprint.
  • And just over 3 minutes for speed endurance hills

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 these sessions. So, make sure you to prioritise recovery.

When I run these, I often 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 don’t run these when your legs are fatigued. While it won’t do you any harm to run these when fatigued, you’ll limit the training benefit from this session.

With this in mind don’t run these 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.

Now, let’s move on to the hill sprint workouts…

HILL SPRINT WORKOUTS

Earlier in this article, I mentioned the two main types of hill sprint workouts. 

  1. Maximal Hill Sprints
  2. Speed endurance hills

In this part we’ll take a closer look at the two approaches and see when and how to include these.

1. Maximal Hill Sprints

These focus on developing maximum strength, power and speed. Here, the whole focus is on running at your maximum speed or intensity. 

As this can only be sustained for very short periods, these need to be kept very short. In fact, for most runners the optimum duration should only be around 8-12 seconds.

So, why are these so short?…most runners can only sustain their maximum running speed for very short time periods – only around 4-6seconds. 

So, in order to train at our maximum intensity these need to be kept very short: 4-6seconds to accelerate to full speed plus a further 4-6seconds of running at full speed. 

The Maximal Hill Sprint Workout

  1. Ensure you include a good warm up. Ideally, including dynamic warm-up exercises, drills and accelerations.
  2. Depending on the purpose of the session you can use either a moderately steep incline (~6-8% gradient), or a steep gradient (~8-10%)*. As a general rule a steeper gradient slightly 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. 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 also useful.
  5. Complete 6-10 hill sprints – depending on your running fitness level, conditioning and training experience.
  6. Ensure you include a good cool down afterwards.

*My preference is to use a steeper gradient of around 10% – you can read why in this article where I look at the best gradients for hill sprints.

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

A point to note: don’t expect dramatic short term results, I like to view hill sprints as a slow burner – the benefits accumulate gradually overtime. In this way, consistency is the most important factor with hill sprints. 

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, they can be effective when included the day before an aerobic interval, or threshold/tempo run session.

2. Speed Endurance Hill Sprints

By extending the hill sprints to around 20-25seconds we add in a speed endurance component. While, the duration isn’t much longer – the extra 10-15seconds makes these physiologically much more stressful. As such, they need to be carefully factored into any training block. 

And while maximal hill sprints can be used year round, speed endurance hills work best when used during key training phases, or as part of specific training blocks. And when used correctly a few weeks of these can bring about significant performance benefits

The speed endurance hill sprint workout

  1. Include a good warm up, with dynamic warm-up exercises, drills and accelerations.
  2. Depending on the purpose of the session you can use either a moderately steep incline (~6-8% gradient), or a steep gradient (~8-10%). 
  3. Each rep should take approximately 20-25seconds to complete when run at close to the maximum sustainable intensity.
  4. Allow, 3-5minutes recovery between each interval. Or, as long as is required to maintain the work rate during the hill sprint. 
  5. Complete 5-8 sprints – depending on your running fitness level, conditioning and training experience.
  6. Ensure you include a good cool down afterwards.
As with the maximal hill sprints, my preference is to use a steeper gradient of around 8-10%, or sometimes slightly steeper.

So, when and why should you use these?

As I mentioned these work well during specific phases of training and wouldn’t normally be used throughout a training block, or season.

In particular, they work well when included as part of a specific training block where the focus is on developing strength, power and speed endurance. In this case, just a 3-4 week block (one session per week) can yield quite significant improvements in strength and power.

As these are physically quite challenging, only include these if you have a good level of conditioning, and you should be familiar with hill sprints, before including these. 

One factor to consider is the effect of hill gradient on these, which is something that I’ll be taking a look at in a future article.

 

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