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

Long Hill VO2max Running Intervals

Long hill intervals combine the training benefits of VO2max running intervals and hill 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.

There’s just one difference….the additional resistance from running against gravity.

They’re a great way to develop aerobic fitness (VO2max) and running efficiency. And, because they’re run up a gradient, the added resistance makes for a very specific form of strength training for runners. Helping, to boost fatigue resistance as well as muscular endurance.

In this article, we’ll take a look at long hill VO2max intervals, and why and how I include these highly effective hill running intervals.

What are long hill running intervals?

So, what are long hill intervals and why should you include these running workouts?

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

Hills are generally considered to be long, when they’re longer than 90seconds. Having said that, this 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.

What’s the training benefit of long hills?

Whilst, the intensity is lower than short hill repeats or hill sprints, these are not an easy option. In fact, they’re still run at a high intensity (ideally close to VO2max) and the longer duration, which makes for challenging workout.

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

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

The big difference, with longer hills 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 hill VO2max intervals vs long 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 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 was 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 increases 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 place a greater emphasis on muscular endurance and fatigue resistance. They also do this, whilst keeping an 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 VO2max intensity. However, depending on your training purpose you may choose to run these at 10k, or even threshold intensity.

One important consideration is the gradient, or steepness of the hill. 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.

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 hill VO2max Running Workouts

Some examples of long hill VO2max workouts:

  • 8-10x 90s hills at VO2max intensity, 2min recoveries at half uphill intensity
  • 6-8 x 2min hills at VO2max intensity, 2:30min recoveries at half uphill intensity
  • 5-6 x 3min hills at VO2max intensity, 3:30min recoveries at half uphill intensity
  • 4 x 4-5min hills at just below VO2max intensity, 5-6min recoveries at half uphill intensity

#2 10k/Threshold Intensity Long hill intervals

We can also use longer hills to develop lactate threshold, by running the hills 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 of 10k/lactate threshold intensity long hill intervals.

  • 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 intervals on a treadmill

Another option is to run long hills on treadmills. Which can be an effective way to complete long hill intervals.

Whilst, treadmills are something I 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. And,
  • Thirdly, you can eliminate the long downhills recoveries

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.

Long Hill Treadmill Workouts

Some examples of long hill treadmill 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. The effect itself is quite small, but it does mean that a 0% treadmill gradient is easier than running outdoors on a flat surface.

In fact, a 1% treadmill gradient is very similar to outdoor running. In this way 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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