Short Hill Repeats: improve strength, running cadence and speed endurance

Hill Repeats Running Workouts

Short hill repeats are the most common type of hill training used by runners. It’s an extremely time effective workout for improving your running cadence, stride length, strength, efficiency and speed endurance.

Here’s why you should be including short hill repeats in your running training…

  • Great for cadence, stride length and running form
  • Improves muscular strength, power and efficiency
  • Elevates anaerobic and aerobic capacity
  • Boosts speed and speed endurance

Ultimately, including short hill repeats will improve your running form, speed and race performance.

So, what are short hill repeats?

Put simply, they’re repeated high intensity intervals run on an incline. Typically, this would involve running 30 to 90 second intervals, on either a moderate (4-6% gradient), or, steeper gradient (>7%). Each hill repeat is then followed by a recovery jog back down the hill, before repeating for a set number of times.

One big advantage with short hill repeats is the level of adaptability – they can be easily tailored to meet the training requirements of sprinters, middle distance and long distance runners.

5 ways to adapt hill repeats

#1 Intensity

With short hills the intensity can vary from close to maximal effort, to 5km running intensity.

Not surprisingly, the intensity has a big effect on the training response:

  • The more intense the hill repeat, the greater the emphasis on strength, speed and anaerobic metabolism.
  • In contrast, a slightly lower intensity shifts the emphasis towards aerobic metabolism and muscular endurance – especially when combined with shorter recoveries.

It’s important to remember that when running hills, it’s better to focus on running at an equivalent “flat terrain intensity” rather than pace. As such, we’re not trying to match the speed we run on flat terrain, but rather the intensity. Why is that?…it’s all to do with the way gradient affects running intensity. As an example, running at 5km pace would be much more intense on an 8% gradient, compared with a 3% gradient. 

#2 Duration of the hill repeat

In general, short hills are approximately 30 to ~60seconds in duration. This allows a higher work intensity compared with long hill repeats.

So, what is the difference between a 30 and 60second hill rep? From a physiological perspective there’s not a huge difference. It really just comes down to…

  • Shorter (30second) hill reps can be run at a higher intensity (greater emphasis on speed, strength and power).
  • Whereas extending this to 60seconds brings in more of an endurance component (greater strength endurance and increasedaerobic emphasis).

One factor to consider is: as the duration increases, both the intensity and cadence are reduced. So, if you’re looking to really emphasise strength and cadence, then focus more on shorter hills.

#3 Recovery duration

With short hills, this can range from a 1:1 right up to a 1:8 work to recovery ratio. It all depends on the intensity and duration of the hill interval – higher intensity efforts require longer recovery periods – and the purpose of the session.

The length of the recovery also influences the overall training effect.

#4 Recovery Intensity

This can vary from a very easy jog/walk recovery, to a more steady pace, such as marathon pace, or possibly even slightly quicker.

By adjusting the recovery intensity, you affect both the interval intensity and the average intensity of the workout. 

If you increase the intensity of the recovery, you also increase the average workout intensity. There is, however, a trade-off – in that the interval work intensity must decrease. 

In contrast, reducing the recovery intensity allows for a higher work rate and cadence during hill repetitions. Really, it all comes down to the purpose of the training session.

#5 Gradient of the hill

Most often, hill workouts are run on gradients of between 3% and 10%.

The choice of gradient is important, and can have a significant effect on the effectiveness of the session. In fact, it can affect a number of factors including:

  • Interval running pace
  • Running cadence and stride length
  • Ground contact time
  • Power, or more specifically, the force per foot strike

Steeper gradients increase the force per foot strike, increase ground contact times and reduce cadence. Whereas less steep gradients allow for a faster cadence, shorter ground contact time, but reduce the force per foot strike.

So, if you’re looking to increase power and strength, then steeper gradients work best. Just, be careful not to run these on too steep an incline, and keep the duration shorter, otherwise it will significantly slow your cadence and increase ground contact time. If your focus is more speed and cadence, then a more moderate gradient works better. 

I’ve covered this in greater detail in an article looking at the best gradients for hill sprints.

Short Hill Repeats vs Hill Sprints

Most runners tend to think of short hill repeats as sprints. However, whilst these are short intense efforts, they’re not sprints in the true sense of the word.

Hill sprints involve running shorter (normally around 8-12second), maximal intensity efforts, with the focus on maximum power, strength and speed development.

With short hill repeats the focus is on “sustaining” a high (but not quite maximal) intensity. In this way, short hill repeats help to develop strength, speed endurance, aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Compared with hill sprints, they place less emphasis on power and top end speed.

However, they place a greater emphasis on the development of the key energy systems used when running middle and long-distance events (both the anaerobic ‘Lactate’ system and aerobic energy systems).

Short hill repeats also help to improve our ability to sustain a ‘near’ maximal running cadence and stride length. 

Essentially, they bring an endurance component to hill training – normally either speed endurance, strength or muscular endurance.

Example Short Hill Workouts

Whilst there are a number of different ways you can run these, they can be loosely categorised based on the primary training focus…

  1. Short hill repeats that focus on anaerobic capacity and speed endurance
  2. Hill reps that focus on anaerobic endurance and aerobic capacity
  3. Short hills that focus on aerobic capacity and muscular endurance

#1 Short hill repeats that focus on anaerobic capacity, strength and speed endurance:

Example session 1: 6-8 x 30sec hills, 3-5minute jog recovery
Example session 2: 5-6 x 45-60sec hills, 3-5minute jog recovery

Here, the focus is on maintaining a very high intensity for 30-60seconds. While, this intensity may appear less beneficial for endurance athletes, there are a number of reasons why they benefit runners…

– Strengthens the key running muscles
– Improves neuromuscular coordination
– Enhances running mechanics and efficiency
– Boosts aerobic fitness and ventilatory threshold
– Lifts anaerobic capacity and endurance
– Improves speed and Speed Endurance
– Increases cadence and stride length

To achieve these training effects the intensity needs to be close to your maximal sustainable intensity. As an example, you should complete each repeat feeling like you couldn’t carry on for too much longer at that speed.

For this reason, it’s really important that the recoveries are long enough, so you can maintain a high work rate across each hill repeat. Ideally, you should feel nearly fully recovered before starting the next hill repeat.

One point to note: because these intervals are very intense, they are generally used sparingly and reserved for key phases within a training cycle.

So, now let’s look at reducing the recovery.

#2 Short hills that focus on anaerobic endurance, aerobic capacity, and strength endurance:

Example session 3: 12-16 x 30secs hills, 60seconds jog recovery
Example session 4: 8-10 x 60secs hills, 2min jog recovery

If you’re a club runner then you’ll likely be more familiar with these hill workouts. In this case, the intensity of the hills are more controlled. While they are still intense, there’s a definite element of pacing the hills – and the recoveries are slightly shorter.

By doing this, we shift the focus to anaerobic endurance and aerobic capacity. 

The intensity is still enough to develop strength and speed endurance. However, because the recoveries are shorter, you won’t fully recover between each hill. And this shifts the speed-endurance focus more towards endurance.

While, the recoveries are shorter, they’re still twice the duration of the hill repeats – so, still long enough to maintain a good intensity during the hills. 

This combination of high intensity hill reps and reduced recovery, means that blood lactate levels will start to accumulate during this workout! Consequently, you will start each interval with some residual fatigue carried over from the previous interval. And this will continue to accumulate throughout the workout.

In terms of intensity, I would normally run the 30second hills at near to 800m intensity, and the 60second hills at somewhere between 800 and 1500m intensity. However, this really depends on your training experience and level of conditioning.

So how do these compare with the anaerobic capacity hills?

Firstly, the intensity is slightly lower, due to the shorter recoveries. Making these slightly less beneficial (although still good) for stride length, cadence and strength development.

Secondly, the shorter recoveries increase the endurance component both on a muscular and cardiovascular level. Making these much more specific for an endurance runner.

The shorter recoveries, also mean that we see an increase in muscle and blood acidity. This means that they improve your ability to tolerate, and clear the build up of muscle and blood acidity levels. 

They also increase the endurance component, making these better for muscular endurance, and increasing the aerobic component.

Now, let’s reduce the recoveries even further!

#3 Shifting the focus to aerobic capacity and muscular endurance:

Example session 5: 10-16 x 60second hills, 90second jog recoveries
Example session 6: 2-3 x 10 x 30second hills, 35-40sec jog recoveries – see tempo hill running intervals

By reducing the recovery ratio even further, we can make these even more specific for an endurance runner. Not only does this increase the aerobic component, but it also increases the muscular and strength endurance component.

So what intensity should you use for these hills? In order to provide a strong aerobic training benefit, while still developing anaerobic conditioning and strength endurance, the intensity really needs to be around 1500/3000m intensity.

Why is that?…when you run at between 3000m and 1500m intensity, the primary energy source is aerobic metabolism; however, anaerobic metabolism still provides around 10-20% of total energy. Making this an ideal intensity to improve VO2 max and improve anaerobic conditioning.

Here’s the main training benefits from running hills at this intensity…

  • By running at close to VO2 max intensity, you improve your ability to absorb, transport and use oxygen.
  • While anaerobic metabolism plays a much smaller role, your blood lactate levels will still increase significantly – thanks to the much reduced recoveries – so you will improve your ability to tolerate and clear increased acidity.
  • Another training benefit with these short aerobic hills, is an improved ability to maintain a high running cadence, and a good stride length.
  • Finally, it’s a great intensity for improving neuromuscular coordination and running efficiency.

A final note on short hill repeats

It’s important to remember the need to achieve a balance between different training intensities. And, hill training is no different: to get the most from hill training you should use a range of different hill workouts, both within a training block and throughout your yearly training plans.

Having said that, all types of hill training are beneficial. So, Whether you’re targeting a 1500m, 5k, 10k, half or full marathon you’ll find short hills a useful addition to your current training.

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