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. They’re a very time effective hill running workout for improving running cadence, stride length, efficiency and speed endurance. 

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

  • Develops Running cadence & stride length
  • Increases Muscular strength & power
  • Improves Running efficiency & form
  • Develops Anaerobic endurance
  • Increases Anaerobic capacity
  • Improves Aerobic capacity
  • Develops speed endurance

Ultimately, including short hill intervals as part of a structured training plan will improve your running form, speed and race performance.

What are short hill repeats?

A typical short hill repeat training session involves running high intensity efforts of between 30 and 90 seconds duration up an incline. These can be run up a moderate (4-6% gradient), or, steeper gradient (>7%). Followed by a recovery jog back down the hill, before repeating a set number of times.

One key point with short hills is the level of adaptability – they can easily be tailored to meet the training requirements of sprinters, middle distance and long distance runners.

In fact, there are a number of different ways that we can use short hill repeats to improve our running performance.

5 ways we can adapt short hills

#1 Intensity of the hill repetition

With short hills the intensity can vary from close to maximal effort, to 5km running intensity. And the intensity of the hill repeat, has a big effect on the training effect.

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

The key point here is: we’re talking about intensity rather than pace – we’re not trying to match the speed we run on flat terrain, but rather the intensity.

#2 Duration of the hill repeat

In most cases, short hills are 30 to ~60seconds in duration. Shorter hills allow a higher work intensity (the recovery period also affects this), whereas longer hills bring in a greater speed-endurance component.

Normally, we wouldn’t class a hill as short if it takes much longer than 60seconds to run up. Otherwise they’re beginning to stray into the realm of longer hills.

One factor to consider, is that as the duration increases, both the intensity and cadence are reduced. So, if you’re looking to really emphasise strength and cadence, then don’t make these too long.

#3 Length of the recovery period

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 Intensity of the recovery period

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, we affect both the interval intensity and the average intensity of the workout. 

If we increase the intensity of the recovery we also increase the average workout intensity. Whereas reducing the recovery intensity allows for a higher work rate and cadence during hill repetitions  – it all depends on the purpose of the training session.

#5 Gradient of the hill

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

The choice of gradient is important, and can have quite a significant effect on the session. Affecting a number of factors including:

  • Interval pace
  • Running cadence
  • 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 steeper hills work well (to a point). 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.

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 we can run short hill repeats, they can be loosely categorised based on the intensity of the hill repeat, and the length of the recovery:

  1. Short hill repeats that focus on anaerobic capacity and speed endurance
  2. Hill repeats 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, in order to develop anaerobic capacity, strength and speed endurance. Whilst, this intensity may seem less beneficial for endurance athletes, there are a number of training benefits including:

– Develops strength in key running muscles
– Tolerate increased muscle acidity levels
– Improved neuromuscular coordination
– Increased ventilatory threshold
– Develops anaerobic capacity
– Sustain faster run cadence
– Greater running efficiency
– Enhances running mechanics
– Improves Speed Endurance
– Increases stride length
– Boosts aerobic fitness

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

Because of this, it’s really important that the recoveries are long enough, in order to maintain a high work rate across each hill repeat. So, you should feel nearly fully recovered at the end of the recovery period.

Because these sessions are so intense, they are generally used sparingly by endurance runners. And normally 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, strength and speed 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 type of hills. The intensity of the hills is a bit more controlled – still intense, but 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 both strength and speed endurance. However, because we’re using shorter recoveries, we do not fully recover between each of the hill repeats, which shifts the speed-endurance focus more towards endurance.

Whilst, the recoveries are shorter, they are 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 and a reduced recovery, means that blood lactate levels will accumulate during this workout! 

So, you will start each interval with some residual fatigue carried over from the previous interval. And this will 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 our 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!

Short hills that focus on 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 recoveries, we can make these even more specific for an endurance runner. This increases the aerobic component of the hill session, as well as the muscular and strength endurance component.

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

At 1500m intensity anaerobic energy provides approximately 20% of total energy. And anywhere in this intensity zone is going to be close to VO2max for most runners.

By running at close to VO2max intensity, we improve our ability to absorb, transport and use oxygen. At the same time these sessions help to improve strength endurance, and the fatigue resistance of slow as well as your fast twitch muscle fibres.

Whilst anaerobic metabolism plays a much smaller role, your blood lactate levels will still increase significantly – thanks to the much reduced recoveries – so you 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.

My preference for aerobic endurance focussed hill sessions, are tempo hill intervals, which you can read about here: tempo hill intervals.

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 we 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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