Why hill training can make you a better runner

Why hill training can make you a better runner

I used to wear a t-shirt that said ‘it’s a hill, get over it’. Many runners have a mental block over running hills but to coin a well-known coaching phrase: “It’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect.”

Strength, endurance and power: these are the three key benefits of repeated hill training. It can provide the strength and conditioning you need to ensure your muscles are still serving you well, even as you cross the line of a long race.

But don’t expect that just running up a hill is going to deliver everything you need to be a better runner – it has to be the right type of running.


1. Rolling hills

Perfect for: improving all distances, from 5K to marathon.

A very clever hill session is to run your usual flat threshold session, for example 4 x 5 minutes at threshold, but over the hilly route, incorporating the undulations. Naturally the pace drops slightly on hills so don’t obsess with your GPS device; the key is to keep the effort level the same.

Maintaining an even threshold effort throughout the blocks, while absorbing the hills, will build strength and endurance whilst improving your running economy (your ability to run harder for longer).

2. Fast, steep hills

Perfect for: shorter distances and cross-country racing.

This is probably the most commonly used type of hill training. It involves finding a steep hill, running up it as hard as you can for 45 to 60 seconds, then gently jogging down for your recovery. Repeat this 8 to 12 times for a session that builds extra strength, speed and power.

If you want to get faster over the parkrun distance, then this is the perfect session.

3. Continuous hills

Perfect for: all distances, but particularly half marathon and marathon.

These have incredible value for every runner but are often less talked about. Kenyan runners use these continuous threshold hills as the bedrock of their base training phase. Run up a 5 to 10% gradient for 45 to 90 seconds at a steady-threshold effort. Turn immediately at the top and run down the hill at the same effort, then turn at the bottom and run up again, and continue to repeat without any recovery until the rep time ends.

You should be working at about 80 to 85% of maximum heart rate and be able to utter three or four words. Try 4 x 6 minutes with a two-minute jog recovery between the blocks.

Whatever your level, these hills are awesome for simultaneously building strength, endurance and conditioning. Become a master at these sessions and you can guarantee that, come race day, you will remain strong in the final third of any race you enter.

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