Performance boost with hills

7. May 2024


When it comes to running, the fastest times are achieved on the flattest possible routes. That’s why many runners prefer to train on flat surfaces. This might be because they want to maintain a specific pace but also because they want to share their training routes with others on apps like Strava and look good.

However, we often forget that to get faster and achieve new personal bests, we should also run regularly on hilly terrain as well as flat surfaces.

Difference between flat and hill training

Hill runs are unique. Right from the beginning, running uphill feels different to running on flat terrain. Extra load is placed on the calves, hamstrings, glutes and back muscles. You have to lift your feet slightly more than normal and the steeper the ascent, the smaller the stride length – as long as you can still keep running instead of walking. Even the back muscles have to work harder and the arms and shoulders are engaged more.

In addition to greater muscular exertion, the cardiovascular system also has to work harder as your heart rate quickly increases during ascents. This increases your speed on the flats, as more effort is required over a given timeframe during shorter road runs. In addition to ‘normal’ endurance runs, shorter or longer hill runs are an ideal way of incorporating hills into your training session.

Short hill runs

Classic hill runs are short, and each repetition takes around a maximum of up to two minutes. During intensive hill runs, you build your strength, muscular endurance and lactate threshold. Short hill runs are suitable for runners aiming to compete in shorter race distances, but also for road, cross-country and mountain runners. The following should be kept mind:

  • The intensity is high and lies in the aerobic/anaerobic transition zone. At the end of the effort, you should be at around 90 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate.
  • Exertion lasting 30 to 60 seconds involves 8 to 12 repetitions. Keep all repetitions the same length.
  • Take jog breaks in between. Ideally, jog back slowly along the same path between each hill run. For exertion lasting approximately one minute, the break should thus automatically last 90 seconds to two minutes.
  • The first repetitions should not be done too quickly to ensure you can maintain the pace to the last run.
  • Variation: set of 3 repetitions with 10 minutes of gentle, consistent running in between each set.

Long hill runs

Long hill runs are slightly less intense and specifically tailored to the needs of long-distance and marathon runners, as well as adventure and mountain runners. Longer hill runs primarily train your strength endurance. Longer hill runs are much the same as competition-specific training in the zone just below the individual anaerobic threshold. During the effort, you should be at around 85 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. The following should be kept in mind:

  • Do fewer repetitions but increase the effort from 5 to 10 or even 15 minutes.
  • It is recommended to look for a suitably long ascent and jog back gently for around 5 after 3 sets before going again.

Pay attention to your technique

In general, the following is important: pay attention to your leg and arm work and a good technique, even when lactic acid is building up in your arms and legs. Make sure your upper body is not leaning too far forward, even during steeper climbs. Choose the gradient based on your current level of fitness: steeper equals more challenging. For short hill runs, the gradient can be relatively steep (5%-10%), whereas for longer runs, it can be somewhat flatter (3%-6%).

While long hill runs are suitable during the preparatory period, shorter versions are best in the immediate run-up to a competition. Those who divide up their training periods into weeks of easy, light, medium, and hard training should only plan to do hill runs during the medium and hard weeks.

A final tip: hill runs particularly strain untrained muscles and muscle soreness is inevitable after the first hill run. It is therefore a good idea to include a long warm-up (15 to 20 minutes) and approach the hill runs carefully.