Tempo Hill Intervals: the best all round endurance hill running session?

Tempo Hill Interval Training

If you’re looking for a hill workout to develop aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, muscular endurance, fatigue resistance and your lactate threshold, then you can’t get much better than tempo hills.

It’s a great all rounder, that works really well in the build up to key endurance races.

Key benefits of Tempo Hill Intervals

  • Develops both lactate threshold and VO2 max
  • Improves strength, muscular endurance and fatigue resistance
  • Enhances aerobic and anaerobic endurance
  • Improved ability to tolerate increased muscle acidity

While the main focus of this session is aerobic and muscular endurance, there’s also a strong anaerobic component, making this one of the best all round hill sessions for endurance runners.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the training benefits of tempo hill intervals. And look at how to use these as part of the build up to key races.

So, what are tempo hills?

The simplest way to think of Tempo hills is, as an over/under version of hill training. If you’re unfamiliar with over/under training, it’s a type of interval training, where you alternate between running at intensities slightly above, and slightly below, lactate threshold intensity.

With tempo hills the over part (above lactate threshold intensity) is the uphill, and the under part (below lactate threshold intensity) is the downhill.

The recoveries are significantly shorter

The real difference with tempo hills is the recovery period – this is much shorter than traditional hill repeats. By doing this we maintain a significantly higher average intensity throughout the workout. And when run correctly, the average intensity is very close to a threshold or tempo run. This works particularly well when the hills are kept short (~20-60seconds duration), and run on a moderately steep incline (~4-6% gradient).

Because the average intensity is higher, these are an effective way to improve your lactate threshold and aerobic capacity, as well as strength and muscular endurance.

To be effective, the duration of the downhill recoveries, shouldn’t be much longer than the uphills. And, ideally should only take around 15-25% longer than the uphill section. As an example, if you’re running the uphill in 30seconds, then the downhill would be run in ~35-38seconds. In this way, you’re minimising the recovery, so it’s just enough to allow you to maintain a good (above lactate threshold) intensity on the up hills.

While this recovery sounds quite challenging, you do have the the assistance of gravity. One point to note: the gradient can have a significant impact – steeper gradients make the uphill more challenging but make it easier to run a fast descent.

In comparison, traditional hill repeats often use recoveries that are two or more times longer than the duration of the uphill.

How do tempo hills differ from Kenyan hills?

The main difference is the greater variation in intensity, between the uphill effort and the downhill recovery. Kenyan hills are more about maintaining a consistent effort on both the uphill and downhill section.

With tempo hills we push the uphill section like you would during track based intervals. Then on the recovery, we reduce the intensity just enough to maintain the work rate of the uphills.

In this sense tempo hills are more like an interval session. And specifically an over/under interval session.

As your conditioning improves, you’ll find you can start to increase the intensity of uphills. And with consistent training, it’s possible to push the uphills at close to VO2 max intensity, while running the downhills at just below threshold intensity. This allows you to maintain an average intensity that is close to threshold intensity.

How to run tempo hills

As always, start with a good warm up including mobility exercises, dynamic stretching, strides, accelerations and ideally some running drills.

Once fully warmed up you’re ready to start. All you need now is a hill with a moderate gradient (ideally 4-6%) and the willingness to push through the inevitable build up of fatigue.

For the tempo hills, run the hills continuously as either one continuous session (e.g. 20-30minutes), or broken into smaller interval blocks e.g. 2-3 x 10minutes of hills, separated by 3-5mins of easy running.

Alternatively you can run a set number of intervals rather than by time. As an example, sometimes I may run these as 2-3 sets of 10 x 30sec hills.

The intensity of the uphill should vary depending on your training focus, the length of the hill, your training experience and your current fitness/conditioning level.

For longer hill tempos (50-60seconds duration – I wouldn’t go longer than this with this session), the intensity for the uphill section should be in the region of 5/10k intensity (as a minimum).

Shorter hills allow a greater intensity

With shorter hills this intensity can be increased. The key is to find an intensity that you can sustain across all the hills.

When I run these, I prefer to use shorter hills that take ~30-35secs to run up. This allows a higher intensity on the uphills. It also means the length of the recovery is shorter (35-40secs, compared with 60-65secs for a longer 55-60sec hill), which helps you to maintain a higher average intensity.

This also means, there’s also a less significant drop in heart rate during the recovery.

For me, the uphill intensity is run between 1500m/3km intensity, while the downhill is run at an intensity that is slightly below marathon intensity. However, since analysing the data from these sessions it’s clear that the true intensity is actually higher than this. Making these sessions far more effective than you would expect.

How to control the intensity

Controlling the intensity of the uphills, and recoveries, is key to getting the most out of these sessions.

As with any short repeated efforts this can be challenging. So what’s the best way to control the intensity?

Here, we have a number of ways to control/monitor the intensity: 

  • Pace
  • Lap Times
  • Heart Rate
  • Running Power
  • Perceived Effort

Each has their own advantages and limitations.

Pace

While running pace can be useful during longer intervals, these hills are too short for it to be effective. Pace (whether it’s measured with GPS or a footpod) is generally a little too erratic, to be useful when intervals are this short.

Lap Times

Keeping a check on lap times for the uphill and downhills can be useful, especially if you have lap data from previous sessions. You can then try to consistently hit the target lap times for the uphill and down hill sections. This can then be adjusted as the session goes on, if these feel too easy.

Heart Rate

Heart rate gives an indication of the actual level of physiological stress during the hills. 

With heart rate the response is slightly delayed, and any rise in heart rate, occurs several seconds after the increase in work rate. Heart rate is therefore less effective for controlling intensity during individual intervals. However, it can be used to monitor the effort level as the session progresses.

In particular, it can be a useful indicator of whether intensity is too high, or too low. This is particularly useful at the start of a session – when intensity is too high at the start of the session, the intensity suffers over the second half. 

In this way, heart rate monitoring can be used to keep intensity in check.

You also need to consider cardiac drift – where heart rate continues to rise even when intensity is maintained. To take account of cardiac drift you need to ensure heart rate doesn’t rise too quickly over the first half of the session.

Running Power

If you use a running power meter you can monitor intensity in real time to control work intensity. I use this to monitor the average power of the intervals as well as the the average power for the session (combined uphills and downhills).

Although power provides useful, additional information, these hills are really a bit too short for power to be an effective way, to control the intensity during individual intervals. Having said that, it gives us additional information that can then be used along with heart rate, lap times and perceived effort.

As you will see in a minute, average power doesn’t represent anywhere near the true intensity of these hills.

Perceived Effort

Ultimately, if you can master perceived effort – the awareness of how hard an activity or exercise is – you will find this session a lot easier to control. In fact, it’s key skill to master as a runner!

With perceived effort we bring our awareness to our perception of how hard the interval is. Allowing us to consider the following questions: how intense is the effort? Is the effort sustainable across the whole session? Am I pushing the recoveries too much? Could I push myself a bit harder on the uphills?

This awareness allows you to control the intensity more effectively. But to master this you really have to be prepared to step away from complete reliance on technology, and risk having faith in your own ability to control intensity yourself.

Sure, you will get it wrong a few times on the way. However, mastering this key skill is vital to getting the most from these sessions, as well as for maximising your running performance and ability. It really is worth setting time aside to practice this.

How I control the intensity during tempo hills

My preference is to focus most attention on perceived effort. But I still take into account heart rate, and running power using the Stryd footpod.

I also check lap times for the uphill and downhill sections to maintain consistency.

An important note on heart rate

Whilst heart rate is less effective for controlling effort during individual intervals, it still has a purpose for controlling intensity across a session. In particular, heart rate gives you a measure of the actual physiological stress you are experiencing during the workout. It also accounts for daily variations in fitness and fatigue. And can be an early warning if something is not quite right.

As mentioned earlier, pushing the intensity too much over the first half of these sessions, can negatively impact intensity over the second half of the session. 

With tempo hills it can be really useful, to deliberately go a bit easier over the first few intervals. In this regard, we can use heart rate to keep intensity in check. With this in mind, if your heart rate rises too quickly over the first few intervals, back off slightly until this settles down.

The image below shows how starting at a lower intensity over the first few intervals can allow you to maintain a more consistent effort (see running power) across the rest of the workout.

You can also clearly see the effects of cardiac drift – where heart rate continues to rise throughout the tempo hills session, even though power remains fairly consistent.

Tempo Hills - running power and heart rate

Why are tempo hills so effective?

In short, this is because they combine the benefits of interval training, with an average intensity that’s very close to threshold intensity.

By exercising above and below lactate threshold intensity, we combine the benefits of aerobic and anaerobic training, lactate threshold and VO2max training, and also gain the benefits of downhill running and the strength training benefits of uphill running.

Let’s take a closer look at why they’re so effective:

#1 The average intensity is very close to lactate threshold

Compared with other hill sessions, the average intensity is much higher. And with consistent training, it’s possible to maintain an average intensity (uphills + downhills) that’s very close to your lactate threshold intensity. Making this a great session for improving your lactate threshold.

In the image below you can see my running power data from nearly 26minutes of continuous tempo hills. I’ve highlighted threshold running power, so you can see, how power oscillates from significantly above threshold (uphills), to just below threshold (downhills).

Tempo Hills Threshold Power

In this case, the average power for the 25mins was 334w – just 4w (~1%) below threshold power. And closer analysis, showed that 64% of the total training time was spent at a running power that was at or above the threshold training zone, with only 36% of training time below threshold intensity.

While the average power was around threshold intensity; power spiked significantly above threshold on the uphills. In fact, power peaked above VO2 max intensity during every up hill, making this a useful session for developing aerobic capacity…

#2 Develops aerobic capacity (VO2 max)

Running at threshold intensity can be effective for developing aerobic fitness. However, by pushing the uphills above threshold intensity you increase the emphasis on aerobic capacity.

In fact, the data from my session, showed that ~41% of total training time (or approximately 10.5minutes) was spent at a power equivalent to or above the VO2max training zone. That’s quite a significant amount, especially when considering the average intensity for the whole 25minutes was close to threshold intensity. 

So as if training at an average intensity equivalent to lactate threshold wasn’t enough. We now know 64% of total training time, was at or above threshold training intensity. And ~41% of the total training time (or ~10.5minutes) was spent at an intensity equivalent to or above VO2 max running power!

And if that wasn’t enough…

#3 Improved anaerobic endurance and conditioning

For me, the most surprising part, was just how effective these hills were for hitting the anaerobic training zone. In fact, 22% (or approximately 5.5minutes) of the total training time, was in the anaerobic training zone.

So not only are these hills great for lactate threshold development and maximal aerobic capacity, they are also great for training anaerobic endurance and anaerobic conditioning.

To summarise:

  • The average intensity was very close to lactate threshold
  • 64% of total training time (~16.5mins) was at or above LT running power
  • 41% of total training time (~10.5mins) was at or above VO2 max power
  • 22% of the workout (~5.5mins) was in the anaerobic zone

Often there is a concern that reducing the recovery duration, will significantly compromise the work intervals. Clearly, sufficient recovery duration is important, but in this case a high work rate can still be maintained with a relatively short recovery. And, while the shorter recoveries do mean you won’t hit quite the same intensity on the uphills. You gain the combined benefits of training lactate threshold, aerobic capacity and anaerobic endurance and conditioning. It’s also beneficial for both cadence and stride length.

#4 Develops running cadence and stride length

Tempo hills are also great for working both running cadence and stride length. While these don’t push the upper limits of cadence and stride length – like with hill sprint workouts and anaerobic capacity hills – we’re developing our ability to sustain a good cadence and stride length.

Tempo Hill Workouts

A word of caution first, these hills can be very intense and fatiguing. It’s important that you are well conditioned, and have completed a significant amount of base training before attempting these. Ideally, complete some preparatory hill training, such as longer hills, hill sprints and repeats before attempting tempo hills.

When you first introduce these, start at a slightly easier intensity and don’t push the uphills too intensely. After a couple of sessions you’ll start to find these easier, and will be able to increase the intensity on both the uphills and downhills.

Initially, split the intervals into smaller intervals, and overtime progress these towards running these as one continuous tempo hill session.

Basic tempo hills Progression:

The following examples show how to progress tempo hills (TH) – from easier to harder sessions.

  • 4 x 5 mins TH, 2-3mins recovery between sets
  • 4 x 6 mins TH, 2-3mins recovery between sets
  • 3 x 8mins TH, 3-4 mins recovery between sets
  • 2 x 12mins TH, 3-5 mins recovery between sets
  • 3 x 10mins TH, 3-5mins recovery between sets
  • 1 x 25-30mins TH

Advanced tempo hill variations:

Below are some more advance variations.

Advanced Tempo Hill Session #1:
10min Tempo Run + 3-5mins easy + 10mins TH + 3-5mins easy + 10min Tempo Run

Advanced Tempo Hill Session #2:
10mins TH + 3-5mins easy + 10min Threshold/Tempo + 3-5mins easy + 10min TH

Advanced Tempo Hill Session #3:
10mins TH + 3-5mins easy + 10min Threshold/Tempo + 3-5mins easy + 10min TH + 3-5mins easy + 10min Threshold/Tempo

Advanced Tempo Hill Session #4:
20mins TH + 20min Tempo

Advanced Tempo Hill Session #5:
10min TH + 4-5mins easy + 6 x (30 sec Hills – hard efforts, 2-3min recoveries) + 4-5mins easy + 10min TH

How To Incorporate Tempo Hills Into Your Training

Tempo hills have that unique combination of a high average intensity combined with a strong aerobic and anaerobic component. In addition, there is increased muscle fibre recruitment which places greater stress on the nervous system. And there’s also the increased eccentric loading from the downhills. 

Taken together this makes these intervals very effective for training, but also very fatiguing. For this reason, we need to be cautious with when, and how often, we use these sessions. 

From my own experience, 2-3 of these sessions during a 8-12 week training block can be very effective.

When to incorporate these?

I find the training adaptation from these hills is fairly quick – often, just 2-3 weeks (sometimes less) is enough to see an obvious progression. However, due to the intensity of these sessions, we don’t want to use these too close to key races.

A good approach is to Include 2-3 of these sessions, ~3-6weeks before a key race. 

You can see examples of how to incorporate these in the following 10k training plans, that I’ve put together:

Elite 10k Running Training Plan
Advance 10k Running Training Plan

How hard to push these?

It really depends on your current run fitness, ability to recover between intervals, and ability to push through the fatigue, when that inevitably sets in. 

For me, I push the uphills at between 1500m and 3k intensity. However, when I first re-introduce these into a training block, the intensity will be lower (~3k/5k intensity).

If you’re new to these, start at a lower intensity and see how that goes. Then look to increase the intensity over subsequent sessions.

When it comes to getting the most out of the session. Always run the first few at a slightly easier intensity. Then gradually increase each one, until you feel you’ve reached an intensity that you can sustain across all of the remaining intervals. You can see an example of this in the earlier image showing “running power and heart rate during tempo hills”.

What about the intensity of the recoveries?

I like to think of the recoveries as a steady intensity, that’s just below marathon intensity. It should feel like you’ve eased off the gas slightly, but are still running at a decent “steady” down hill pace with the assistance of gravity.

If you want to read more about hill workouts start with the article covering the benefits of hill running. There, you will find links to all the hill running articles.

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