When is the Right Time to do Hill Workouts in a Training Cycle?

January 10, 2024

Hill workouts are often best started in the initial stages of any training cycle, and now being the first month of the year, could be the perfect time for most road runners to incorporate hill workouts in their training programs, given that April and May usually has the highest number of road races in the first half of the year.

Many of the world’s top runners usually start their training early in the year with more gym work and core strengthening exercises than they would do later on when they get closer to their races. Like a bat that is neither a bird nor an animal, hill workouts fall somewhere in between running and gym work. Hill workouts are a form of resistance training that works on the calves, the quads, the hamstrings, the glutes, the hip flexors and the Achilles' tendons.

The purpose of any good training program is to help the body attain the right adaptation and super-compensation to be able to get better at a specific skill. In training, one has to be aware of what they want their body to adapt to, the intent, and the purpose of the training stimulus to get the right reaction to the training load.

Hills work to improve the pulmonary, cardiovascular and muscular systems of the body, and those are perhaps the primary body systems that make one a good runner. While a stationary bike at the gym can do that, hills have the added advantage of helping the runner work on their arm swings, steps, cadence and running posture.

Besides working on general fitness, hills work on the specific skill of tackling the hilly sections of courses in a race.

Even runners who train on the same route would one time get surprised to find that a section they used to think was hilly seemed to have flattened all of a sudden after they included hill workouts in their training.

After training well on hills, it is even hard for runners to notice hilly sections on a race course; except by observing that the trees are not growing perpendicular to the ground!

Having trained in the same training group with a two-time Olympic and four-time world champion, I have seen first-hand how hill workouts help shape a runner to be the best in the world, and the right times to incorporate them in a training program.

In a one-week training cycle, we had one specific day for hill workouts. For elite level and serious runners, a typical training week should have two or three hard days, and the days in between as easy or recovery days. One of the hard days could be dedicated to the hill workouts. It can be tailored differently for runners who either have little time to commit to training, or for those who train for fun.

As the racing season approached, the hill workouts would stop, and the same day would be dedicated to interval training. And when the legs that were getting used to sprinting up a hill were taken onto a flatter surface, they felt lighter and faster, which was one of the intended purposes in the first place.

There are different ways of doing the hill workouts.

The first option that we used was; jogging for at least 15 minutes, finding a slope of about 300 to 400m stretch. We would then run up moderately and jog down slowly as we recovered for a continuous 40 – 45 minutes. We tried to stick together in a large group, but we would all end up stretched across the training area as we would not hold the same pace together towards the end.

The second option of doing the hill workout –after warming up for 15 minutes- was on a shorter slope of around 150 – 200m slope where we would sprint up hard, hold our knees as we recovered at the end of the slope; then jog back down the slope for another repetition. We had a certain number of repetitions to do, like sprinting up twenty times.

The third option was to travel to a place where we would find an escarpment where we would be dropped off some 15 kilometres down the escarpment, and we would run up one way.

In all these, we were able to build the right muscular endurance, muscle strength, speed, stamina and cardiovascular endurance that would carry us through the rest of the training season, including through the competitions.

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