Hill Sprints For Running Performance

Hill Sprints Running

Hill sprints are one of the best ways to improve our running speed, power and strength simultaneously. Not only do these short maximal efforts build strength in all our key running muscles, but they improve our ability to apply force more powerfully and efficiently. You will also see improvements in stride length, run cadence, neuromuscular coordination and ultimately running efficiency. And by improving the muscular strength of key running muscles you’re reducing injury risk.

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    What are Hill Sprints?

    Hill sprints are short maximal efforts run up a gradient. Depending on your training focus, the gradient may be steep (>7%) or more moderate (4-6%). The key point however is that the effort must be maximal (or very near maximal). This is where hill sprints differ from other types of hill training.

    In order for the effort to be maximal the hill sprint must not be too long. Many people mistake short hill reps such as 30-60sec hill repeats as hill sprints. These are quite different from hill sprints. Whilst short hills may seem like fast efforts – they are not sprints, or maximal efforts. And as such have a different purpose and training benefit.

    To be considered a hill sprint, these really need to be kept really short – no longer than 10-12 seconds maximum. In fact 8-10seconds is probably optimum for most runners. Any longer than this, and you’re working at a submaximal intensity and the training benefit is altered.

    At these intensities the primary energy source is anaerobic alactic systems. In fact, when running at maximal intensity for ~10-12 seconds, over 90% of our energy needs are met through anaerobic energy systems.

    The good news is because sprints are so short, we don’t see a significant build-up of lactate. So, although these sessions are challenging, you won’t get the level of fatigue experienced during longer intervals, where lactate levels accumulate.

    Whilst training the anaerobic systems might seem like a waste of time for endurance athletes. We need to get beyond this thinking and realise the benefits of hill sprints for endurance runners. In fact, these sessions are key to the development of maximal running speed, strength and power. Importantly, they’ve been shown to improve running efficiency which is key factor in improving your running performance.

    In this article I’ll hopefully help you to see the benefits of hill sprints, in the same way that i’ve grown to change my thinking on these key sessions. Let’s start by considering the purpose of hill sprints.

    What’s the main training purpose of hill sprints?

    The key training purpose of hill sprints is to develop strength and power in all the key muscles used when running. By doing this we train our muscles to be able to apply force more powerfully. And at the same time improve neuromuscular co-ordination which improves the efficiency of muscles and groups of muscles.

    Why are hill sprints so effective?

    To run at maximal intensity, we need to recruit more muscle fibres. When we throw added resistance into the mix – by running up a hill – we increase the force that we generate per footstrike.

    Not only are we recruiting greater numbers of muscle fibres and increasing force per footstrike, we are also running at near maximal running cadence.

    It’s this combination of a high running cadence and maximal power that’s key here. It means we’re providing maximum training stimulus to both maximum running cadence and at the same time our stride length.

    In this way, hill sprints are a great way to develop strength, power and maximum running velocity – all key components for running efficiency and ultimately running performance. In fact, these short hills are not only more fun than other types of hill training, they’re the most effective type of hill training for the development of maximum strength, speed and power.

    Unfortunately, many runners overlook the benefits of these type of hill sessions. They may seem too short, or too fast, to be beneficial for endurance. As endurance runners it’s easy for us to neglect the development of top end speedwork in our training. And focus on development of our fitness and endurance. That’s a shame as these are a very time effective addition to run training. They’re also easy to fit into our training, such as at the end of, or during, an easier run to add in some additional training benefits.

    Hill Sprints are a highly specific type of strength training for runners

    As we are significantly increasing the force of muscular contractions, hill sprints can be viewed as a type of strength training. And as we’re doing this whilst running, we can say this is a highly running specific form of strength training.

    “Compared with other types of hill workouts, hill sprints are the most effective method for developing strength, power, maximum cadence and stride length. Therefore, the primary purpose for including hill sprints is to simultaneously push the limits of strength, power and speed. And as a consequence, improve maximum cadence, stride length and running efficiency.”

    Summary of the benefits of Hill sprints for runners

    • Higher level of muscle fibre recruitment than any other types of hill training
    • Important for development maximum speed, strength and power
    • Improves strength of all key running muscles and tendons, reducing the overall risk of injury
    • Improves neuromuscular co-ordination
    • Leads to improvements in running efficiency, stride length and cadence
    • The primary energy source is ‘alactic’ energy so this doesn’t lead to the build-up of lactate

    Hill sprints: Key considerations?

    Short hill sprints should be near maximal effort

    To get the most from these sessions and to fulfil the purpose of these sessions, the hill sprints need to be as close to maximal effort as possible. All other types of hill reps – although run at a high intensity – are submaximal in intensity. In this way hill sprints are distinct from any other type of hill session.

    Use the first few seconds of each interval to accelerate to top speed

    To maximise these sessions, use the first few seconds of the interval to accelerate to top speed. Then try to hold this intensity for the remainder of the hill sprint. We cannot maintain maximum velocity, or intensity for more than around 5-6seconds, so use the first few seconds to accelerate to maximum intensity and then try to hold that for the remainder of the hill rep.

    Hill sprints need to be “short”

    In order to run at near maximal intensity, hill sprints need to be short. Ideally no more than around 10-12 seconds maximum. Any longer than this and your intensity will be below maximum. If you’re new to these, then keep duration even shorter (6-8 seconds) and gradually build this up.

    Recovery is key

    As the primary focus is maximum effort, we need to prioritise recovery between efforts. Ideally, we need to allow 2-3minutes of very easy jogging to recover. You may even need to walk part of the recovery – that’s fine. The key is to maintain the quality of the effort as well as good running form. These sessions are distinctly different to other endurance sessions. And we need to approach these more like a sprinter. To do this we need to ensure that we allow sufficient recovery time. Otherwise the quality of hill sprint will suffer.

    How to incorporate short hill sprints?

    My preference for hill sprints is to incorporate these into an easy run – either near the end or during the middle of the run. After the first session your legs will ache (if you’ve done these correctly) for a couple of days. Mainly, due to added muscle fibre recruitment and the extra force generated. Once you are used to this type of session this will soon lessen.

    What about technique for hill sprints?

    The main focus should be a tall upright posture with an awareness of good core engagement. Focus on a good high knee lift and relaxed efficient arm technique driving the arms backwards.

    How to run a hill sprint training session

    1. Ensure you complete a good warm up, even if you include this near the end of easy run (not too long).
    2. As part of the warm up include some dynamic warm up exercises and ideally a few drills. Some good drills to include are A-skips, B-skips, high knees and high skips.
    3. Follow this up with some short accelerations (4-6) up the hill you will be using. These only need to be around 5-6 seconds long. And should start at a moderate pace. Look to build the intensity on each acceleration until the final one is near maximal.
    4. Ideally the hill should have a gradient of around 4-8%. The gradient you choose will have an effect on the training benefit. A steeper gradient reduces cadence but increases force production. Whereas a more moderate gradient allows you to run at a faster cadence with a slightly lower power.
    5. Either mark out a set distance (my preferred option), or, use a countdown timer. Either way the hill sprints should take no longer than 10-12 seconds maximum. Less if you are unfamiliar with hill sprints.
    6. Use the first few seconds of each interval to accelerate to top speed. Once at top speed/intensity try to maintain this for the remainder of the hill sprint.
    7. Allow 2-3minutes recovery between each interval. Or, as long as is required to maintain the work rate during the interval. Walk if necessary.
    8. Ensure you include a good cool down afterwards.

    How many hill sprint sessions should you include per week?

    This varies depending on your running goals, training focus and experience. Typically, 1 session a week is effective, although 2x weekly can work well in the earlier phases of training. Especially as part of the build-up/preparation for more intense training phases. Later in a training phase, you may find that 1x every 2 weeks is sufficient for maintenance of strength, power and speed.

    How many hill sprints should you complete?

    As these are maximal, it’s not about how many. But more about the quality of the sprints. Six really well executed hill sprints will be more effective than 10 poorly executed sprints. The key really is how many hill sprints can you maintain at maximum intensity. For me this is around 8-10. However, in reality there isn’t a huge training difference between completing 6 reps or 10 reps. 

    If you’re new to this type of sprint training then start with just 2-4 and build up from that. An example 6-week progression is shown below. You may also choose to start the first session at just below maximal effort.

    Example 6-week hill sprint workout progression:

    • Week 1: 2-4reps x 6-8secong hill sprints (80-85% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
    • Week 2: 4-6reps x 6-8 second hill sprints (85-90% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
    • Week 3: 4-6reps x 8-10 second hill sprints (90-95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
    • Week 4: 4-6reps x 8-10 second hill sprints (>95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
    • Week 5: 6-8reps x 8-10 second hill sprints (>95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery
    • Week 6: 6-8reps x 10-12 second hill sprints (>95% effort), 2-3mins jog recovery

    When should you include hill sprints?

    Ideally don’t complete these the day after a more intense training session. Your legs won’t thank you for it – they’ll still be tired from the previous session, you won’t hit full intensity and won’t get the full training benefit.

    If you don’t regularly include more intense training sessions, then be more cautious initially. And ensure that you leave 1-2 easy days either side of hills sprints.

    If you’re more experienced, you should find that your recover quickly from these workouts. For me, I tend to include these the day before an aerobic interval sessions. The reason for this is that the main energy system used in the hill sprints (alactic), is not a key player during the aerobic intervals. And any fatigue associated with the hill sprints doesn’t normally interfere with my aerobic intervals. In fact, I find any fatigue from the hill sprints normally tends to kick in 2 days after the hills – so normally the day after the aerobic intervals.

    Hill Sprints Summary

    • Hill sprints provide the maximum level of muscle fibre stimulation of running muscles.
    • Improves neuro-muscular co-ordination.
    • A key training type for development of maximum strength, power and speed.
    • The most effective type of hill training for speed and running power development.
    • Reduces the risk of injury by strengthening the key running muscles and tendons.
    • Improves running efficiency, cadence, and stride length.
    • A steeper gradient places greater emphasis on force production.
    • A more moderate gradient places greater emphasis on maximal running cadence.
    • Primary energy source is ‘alactic’.
    • Lactate levels do not accumulate during hill sprints.
    • Intervals need to be run at near maximum intensity to be effective
    • Hill sprints need to be short (max of 10-12seconds) to be effective
    • Recoveries should be long enough to maintain intensity and good running
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