Long Hill Running Intervals: Improve Aerobic Capacity (VO2max) and Muscular Endurance

Long Hill VO2max Running Intervals

Long hill repeats combine the training benefits of VO2 max running intervals and muscular endurance training.

They’re similar to the longer intervals that most runners are familiar with – 600, 800 or even 1000m intervals. They’re also run at a similar intensity – making these a great workout for developing aerobic fitness.

There’s just one difference….the additional resistance from gravity. By running these up an incline, the extra resistance makes for a very specific form of strength training for runners. Helping, to improve running efficiency as well as boosting fatigue resistance and muscular endurance.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the benefits of long hill repeats and how to include these in your training.

What are long hill repeats?

So, what are they and why should you include these running workouts?

Long hill intervals, involve running a series of high intensity efforts up a moderate gradient.

So, when does a hill become a long hill? In general, we can consider a hill rep to be long when they’re longer than 90seconds. Having said that, there is no set rule as to what is considered a long hill.

For me, long hills typically involve running intervals in the region of 2-4minutes – sometimes longer.

Why use long hills?

While, the intensity is lower than short hill repeats or hill sprint workouts, longer hills are not an easy option. In fact, they’re still run at close to VO2 max intensity. And when combined with the longer duration and added resistance, these make for a challenging workout.

This makes long hill intervals more specific for the development of aerobic fitness. And, because they’re longer than short hills, they place greater emphasis on muscular endurance.

Like, other types of hill running workouts, they’re a highly specific form of strength training for runners.

The big difference, is the increased emphasis on muscular endurance and fatigue resistance, rather than strength and power. There’s also much greater emphasis on aerobic rather than anaerobic metabolism.

Long hills vs track intervals

So, why run long intervals on hills? Why not just run these intervals on flat terrain?

Ok, so in terms of intensity and the aerobic training benefit these are very similar to track running intervals. But, here’s the difference: when we run up a gradient we increase the force per foot strike.

So, what’s the significance of this? To increase the force per foot strike, muscles and individual muscle fibres have to increase their work rate. In addition, we see an increase in the recruitment of muscle fibres.

This increases the strength endurance and fatigue resistance of muscles and muscle fibres.

My own data, using the Stryd footpod, shows that running power is approximately 4% higher per foot strike, compared with the equivalent intensity on flat terrain.

Whilst, a 4% increase doesn’t sound significant, these intervals were just over 3minutes long. So, that’s nearly 600 foot strikes per interval – each at a 4% greater work rate.

Here, it’s the sustained increase in force per foot strike, during long hill intervals, that benefits fatigue resistance and muscular endurance.

Why not just run short hill repeats?

Short hill repeats are a great option, especially when you want to place a greater emphasis on power, strength and efficiency. But each type of hill workout has a specific benefit and purpose.

With long hills the main training benefit is the combined benefits of muscular endurance and aerobic fitness. And in particular, long hills are a very specific muscular endurance workout for runners, that places a strong emphasis on aerobic fitness.

How to run long hill intervals

Long hill intervals, normally involve running intervals lasting between 1:30 and 5:00 minutes.

My preference is to run these as 2-4minute intervals, at an intensity close to VO2 max intensity. However, depending on your training purpose you may choose to run these at 10k, or even lactate threshold intensity.

One important consideration is the gradient. For me, long hill intervals work best when gradient is around 3-5%.

Any, steeper than this and running cadence can decrease significantly. This also causes a significant increase in ground contact time. Having said that, steeper gradients increase the strength component and this can be useful during the early phases of training. It really all comes down to your training purpose!

Another consideration, is the recovery periods. The recovery periods are longer with hill intervals – due to having to run right back down the hill, to re-start each interval.

This is the main reason, that I tend to prefer running long hill intervals at close to VO2max intensity. The longer recoveries are then just about right for the intensity of the interval.

So let’s look at some long hill interval sessions

#1 Long Hill VO2max Running Intervals

For these we are running the hill intervals at an intensity that is equivalent to VO2max intensity. For, most runners this would be an intensity you could sustain during a 6-9minutes maximal effort. So, the intensity is similar to vVO2 max intervals. However, the pace is slower due to the incline.

The important point here, is that we’re talking about an equivalent intensity, rather than equivalent pace.

So how do we control intensity?

Here, controlling intensity by pace is extremely difficult – especially when we would need to factor in the gradient. Heart rate can be useful, giving us an indication of work intensity. Although, these are generally too short to effectively control intensity by heart rate.

Running power can be an effective option, as it allows you to see a snapshot of your work rate at any given moment. It also allows you to match intensity, with an equivalent flat terrain intensity/pace.

For me, I prefer to control intensity using a combination of running power, heart rate and perceived exertion.

With the downhill recoveries, aim to run these at just under half the intensity of the uphill – again this is intensity and not pace.

So, here’s some examples, I’ve used in my own training.

Long VO2max hill repeats

Some examples VO2max hill repeat workouts:

  • 8-10x 90s hills*, 2min recoveries*** 
  • 6-8 x 2min hills*, 2:30min recoveries*** 
  • 5-6 x 3min hills*, 3:30min recoveries*** 
  • 4 x 4-5min hills**, 5-6min recoveries*** 
*VO2 max intensity
**Just below VO2 max intensity
***Recoveries at half the uphill 

#2 10k/Threshold Intensity Long hill intervals

We can also use these to develop lactate threshold, by running at an intensity that’s between 10k and lactate threshold intensity.

These can be combined with a more steady pace downhill, to keep the average intensity higher.

10k/Threshold Long Hill Workouts

Some examples 10k/lactate threshold intensity hills.

  • 2-3 x 10-12minutes (alternating between 2-3minutes uphill at 10k intensity, 2-3minutes downhill at marathon intensity), 3-5minutes easy running between sets.
  • Alternatively, this could be run as one continuous session. For example, 20-30minutes alternating between uphill efforts at 10k intensity and downhills at marathon intensity. Here, the length of the efforts could be anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes.

#3 Long hill treadmill workouts

Another option is to run these on a treadmill. 

While, treadmills are something I generally prefer to avoid, there are a some advantages:

  • Firstly, you have complete control over the gradient and pace.
  • Secondly, you are not limited by the length of the hill.
  • Thirdly, you can eliminate the downhill recoveries. However, it’s important to remember that there are benefits to downhill running.

I’ve written a whole article on treadmill hill workouts, if you would like to look at this in greater detail.

For now, here’s a few examples of how to run long hills intervals on a treadmill.

Example Treadmill Hill Workouts

  • 10-12 x 90secs @ 3k intensity* (3-4% gradient), 60seconds recovery (0% gradient)
  • 8-10 x 2minutes @ 5k intensity* (3-4% gradient), 60seconds recovery (0% gradient)
  • 6-8 x 3minutes @ 10k intensity* (3-4% gradient), 60seconds recovery (0% gradient)
  • 2-3 x 10minutes @ 10mile intensity (2-3% gradient), 3minutes recovery (0% gradient)

*For every 1% gradient increase, running speed generally slows by ~10-15seconds/mile – depending on body weight, running efficiency, muscle strength and aerobic fitness. So running pace should be in the region of 30-45seconds slower per mile for a 3% gradient, and 40-60seconds slower for a 4% gradient.

However, running on a treadmill is slightly easier than outdoor running, due to the lack of wind resistance. While, the effect itself is quite small, it does mean that a 0% treadmill gradient is easier than running outdoors on a flat surface. For most runners, a 1% treadmill gradient is similar to outdoor running. With this in mind, a 4% treadmill gradient is equivalent to approximately 3% outdoors.

So, if you want to accurately reflect outdoor running then add an extra 1% onto your treadmill incline.

So, hopefully that’s given you a few insights into how and why to include long hill intervals.

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