Anatomy of a Hill Repeat

Anatomy of a Hill Repeat

You’ll often hear people talking about hill workouts.  It sounds like there is one, monolithic thing called a hill workout.  There are many nuances to hill workouts.  I’ll share one with you today and go a bit deeper so you can practice.

This particular type of hill workout I’m going to call a ‘hill repeat’ or alternatively a ‘short hill tempo’ workout.

Coaches love hill workouts.  Why?  Because you can get a lot of benefit from a hill workout and it is quite efficient.  Coaches like to say that hill workouts are ‘speedwork in disguise’ because they have the same anaerobic and strength benefits of a hard speed workout at the track.

Hill workouts also focus your form.  It’s hard to heel strike when you are running up hill at tempo pace.  Running up hill almost forces you into a good running form.

Where do you put hill workouts into your training plan?  Typically you’ll save these for the last 3rd of your plan where you are building race specific strength.  At this point you’ve already got base fitness and you are working on leg strength, hard efforts and recovery.  Race specific stuff.  Even more so if your target race has some hills in it.

This takes the same slot as a speed workout if you’re working with a weekly cycle.  Typically it’s going to fall in one of your hard weeks or build weeks coming up to the race.  In an advanced plan, for example, you may be doing 3 hard workouts in that week.  The first or last, depending on how you’re accounting, is the weekend long run.  The second would be some sort of longer tempo run, like a step up run.  The third would be the strength or speed or hill workout with recovery runs or cross training in between.

For less intense runners you might have the long run and one hard work out during the week.  It really depends on where you are, what you’re capable of and what your goals are.  As usual I’d recommend consulting a coach to set up your plan if you don’t know what you’re doing.

There are different types of hill workouts.  The simplest is to just go out and run a hilly course. (which pretty much describes every run here in New England.)

Then there are dedicated hill workouts.  The dedicated hill workouts fall somewhere in a four-box matrix of distance and intensity.  Length of the repeat in time or distance on one dimension and intensity of effort on the other dimension.

Let’s talk about intensity first.  You can drop intensity into two buckets.  The first bucket I call a ‘hill charge’.  The second I’ll call a ‘hill repeat’.  This is where the nuance comes in.  All hill workouts are difficult.  All hill workouts are intense.  But, some are more intense than others.

It really comes down to what you’re trying to accomplish.  If you are focused purely on anaerobic training and strength then you may do the hill charge.  The hill charge means that you are giving 100% effort to each hill repetition.  When you get to the top you are coughing up blood, (metaphorically, if you’re really coughing up blood, you should see a doctor because you might be a consumptive character in a Victorian novel).

The nuance here is that ‘hill charges’ are all about effort.  Not so much about form and mechanics.  I tend to do these on steeper hills because it makes them that much harder!  These are perfectly good workouts late in a training cycle, especially for a race you know has some scary, steep hills.  Be careful with these because the intensity makes injury more likely.

The ‘hill repeat’, on the other hand is still a hard workout.  But instead of 100% you are going 80-85% effort and focusing on form and mechanics.  When you get to the top you’re working hard but you’re not dying.  That’s the version I’m going to focus on in this piece.

While the ‘hill charge’ is about beating yourself into shape, the intent of the ‘hill repeat’ is to practice hill form, hill effort and hill recovery.  It’s more about mastery than physical abuse.  It’s about practice.  It’s about efficiency of effort.  That’s the nuance.

The other side of the four-box matrix is distance or duration.  There are short, medium and long versions of these hill workouts.  Starting early in the cycle they might be 30 seconds long, progress to 60 seconds and then to 90 seconds.  There is a final longer version I run that is around a ½ mile or 800 meters.  Start with the shorter versions and work up to the longer.

Hill charges you might do 4, 5 or 6 in a set.  Hill repeats you’ll do 10 or more in a set.

For the repeat you’ll need to find a hill.  You can do these on a treadmill with a 4-5% grade but I would recommend doing them outside on a shallow 4-5% grade hill.  This means maybe 15-20 feet of elevation gain for a 30 second repeat.  Not too steep.

For you folks in Florida or Kansas this is the same steepness as a typical on-ramp or a bridge.  In a perfect world this hill is 15-20 minutes from your house.  This way you can warm up for a mile or so before you get to the hill.  In a perfect world this hill should be about 800M in length.

I have the great fortune to have such a hill a mile and a half from my door.  I call it my Heartbreak Hill because it has a similar topography to the hill at the 20 mile mark of the Boston marathon.  About 200 feet of rolling gain over a ½ mile.  I can do all these different durations and distances on this one hill.

Run your 10 – 20 minute warm up to the base of the hill.  Carry a bottle with you so you can get a drink between reps.  It really helps.  Find a place to stash your bottle where you can get to it between repeats.  It should be within 50 feet of the base of the hill where you’ll start your rep.  A little home base to launch your hill repeats from.

Before you start, look around at the base of the hill to see where you can keep track of the repetitions.  You don’t want to keep track of the number of reps in your head.  You’ll forget mid-way through.  Guaranteed.  Then you’ve got to make that choice of either doing too many or too few.  I always end up doing too many.

One good way to keep track, if there is sand, or dirt or even snow is to scratch tally marks.  You can carry a bit of chalk or use a sharp rock as well.  You simply scratch a new tally mark each time you return to the base of the hill.  If you can’t do that you can use pebbles or sticks or anything else that you can line up to mark off each new rep.  It’s fun too.  A bit of gamification of a hard workout.

I would not recommend programming these workouts into your watch.  It’s ok to wear your Garmin to keep track of your pace, elevation and heart rate, but you don’t want to be messing with it during the workout.  You want to focus on the workout and not be distracted.

What I will do is time the first rep of the workout.  Let’s say it’s a 30 second rep. Start the rep at a milestone point at the base of the hill like a pole, a tree or a rock.  Anything recognizable.  This will be your starting point.

Let your watch get to an easy math point, a round number, for example 15:30.  Run the rep and keep an eye on the watch.  When you hit 16:00 note the location.  Then mark that location, that point on the road or trail.  That’s the milestone for the end of your rep. You can use a stick, a rock, a mail-box, a piece of trash or a dead possum – just as long as it’s visible from a few feet away.

If you mark the start and end of the rep the first time then you don’t have to look at your watch anymore.  You can focus on the workout.

How do you run the rep?  You are focusing on form during effort.  You are going to execute these at a consistent 80-85% effort level throughout the rep.  This is like a 5K level effort.  For example my current target marathon race pace is around an 8 minute mile and I was in the 6:30 to 7:00 minute mile range.  Moving along with a good clip but not all out.

This is for 30, 60 or 90 seconds so you can push pretty hard and hold the pace without breaking form.  For a ½ or 800m rep you’ll need to eases into it more.

When I start the rep my Heart rate is zone 2 or zone 1.  When I hit the top my heart rate is 4.5 or above.

When you pass the end milestone you drop into a jog to recover and jog back down the hill to your base camp.  Once in your base camp you scratch off a tally mark, take a drink and let your heart rate come back down to zone 2 or 1.  Jog back to the start milestone and hit it again.

I cannot overemphasize that while this is a hard workout the point of this workout is not effort.  The point is form and mechanics practice.

As you accelerate into the hill focus on all those good form habits that you need to practice.  Light, fast turnover off the front-to-midsole.  Your feet hitting the ground should not make noise.  Leaning forward at the ankles.  Pushing your hips forward.  Running tall with your shoulders and chin up.  Hands high. Loose and close to the chest.  Minimal body rotation.

Smile.  It’s a privilege and a gift to be able to do this hill repeat.  Have some gratitude.  Smile.  It’ makes it easier.

Don’t slouch into the hill.  Don’t lean into the hill.  Don’t do battle with the hill.

Once you have your good form you can focus on the finer points of running uphill.  Push those hips forward.  Notice your knee lift and how you can use your knee lift to pull yourself up the hill.  Think about running with your core muscles as you do this.  Feel the connections from the core to the knees using those ab and core muscles to pull up the strings of your legs.

These repeats will start to get hard towards the end of the rep and the last 3 or so may be a bit more difficult.  As you get tired, don’t compensate by working harder.  You are practicing form.  Compensate by really working that form, holding it clean and pulling up the hill with your core.  This is the practice.

You do get a good physical workout running a set of 10 hill repeats. That’s a given.  But the real benefit is adding another tool, another discipline to your running repertoire.  When you’re in your race you’ll be able to use this practiced form to flow through the hills without them having a deleterious effect on you.

You’ll see the hill and since you practiced this, your body and subconscious will say “hey, a hill, we know how to do this!” And it will all click into place.  If you should find yourself struggling on a hill you can run down this form checklist and tighten things up to carry on.

That’s why you should practice hill repeats.  Practice leads to mastery.

1 Comment

  • Larry White

    Reply Reply March 21, 2017

    Nicely done. We read a lot about hill repeats, but this is as lucid and fun of an explaination of a specific workout as I’ve seen. Thanks!

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