Does hill running make you faster?

As many runners are now in the early stages of their seasons, I thought I would write something on hill running. Common perception would lead us to believe that running hills makes us stronger, but how does that relate to running speed. There are actually a lot of questions that surround running hills. For example:
1. If hill running makes you stronger does that mean you are faster too?
2. If I can run hills well does that mean I can outrun someone on a flatter course too because I’m stronger?
3. If I’m slow, will running hills make me fast?

First the short answers to the above questions:
1. No, training on hills alone does not make you faster.
2. No, it does not necessarily follow that if you are stronger you are faster.
3. No, it does not necessarily mean that if you are faster than someone on a hilly course that you will trounce them on the flat courses.
4. No, running hills does not directly make you fast.

Stride rates and stride lengths – legs – watch them!
Something I notice when watching elite runners in comparison to age-group runners is the power in their strides. There is power in every stride that thrusts the elite runners forward. And from beginning to end of races the strides remain powerful. In age-groupers the strides are abbreviated; there is excess up and down motion instead of forward; and dramatically less power in the late stages of a race. It appears that their legs are almost lifted then dropped in front of them instead of powerfully driven forward with power from the hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles. The elite runners got fast and powerful through doing running-specific strength workouts (that includes hill training) and doing fast workouts (speed work).

Hill training is integral to a comprehensive training program. Hill training is the part of a phase of training I call “speed-strength” training. Speed-strength workouts are designed to give you raw running-specific power. It prepares you for the transition to true “speed” training. This is part of what replaces the antiquated long slow distance base approach to training.

To get fast you need power – but it must be running-specific power. So, running hill repeats is a very efficient way to build that. Time spent in the weight room is not. More miles also will not. But running hills alone only makes you strong not fast. This makes logical sense. You cannot run uphill as fast as on flats or downhill. So, if you only do hill work you will be training your legs to turn over slowly – albeit powerfully. Notice that I called this initial phase SPEED-strength. In order to overcome making you strong and slow, speed work is ever-present. And it is that combination that is the trick.

As I mentioned in a previous article on hill running, research has shown that using both a gradual graded hill for longer repeats (400-800 meters) and a steeper graded hill for shorter bounding repeats (15-45 seconds) yields the best results. Also merely going out and running a trail, running a rolling hilly course and the like, are not good “hill training” approaches. Running hills passively in this manner is ineffective in making you stronger and faster. (Before I get all the hate mail on this – I am not saying to avoid trail running or running passively on a hilly course. I’m also not addressing training for a race-specific rolling hill course. I’m addressing a specific phase of training – a focused part of a training program and how to do it most effectively.)

During a hill training session I integrate fast flatland reps at the end of practice. I also keep a regular dose of track workouts in the scheme of things; once each week or every other week there is a regular track workout during this phase. Why? So you do not lose your leg speed. Once you’re done with the hill training phase you’re ready to transition to speed work. By keeping some quick stuff in your repertoire it makes your transition to the next phase smoother. Furthermore, you haven’t regressed on your overall development like you do when you follow the long slow distance base training philosophy – devoid of speed.

You get faster by lengthening your stride or quickening your stride rate. Hill training itself has not done either of these things! But it lays the ground work to do them both. Hill work builds running-specific strength which you must now use to get faster.

Do you have more questions about hill running? Let us know by posting a comment on this page.
Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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11 Responses to Does hill running make you faster?

  1. PeggyAnn says:

    Coach Dean,

    I just stumbled across your page today after googling “hill and stair training to improve running”. I spent some quality time reviewing your entries. As a registered dietitian and avid runner, I am refreshed to see solid research-based info packaged in a one-stop-shopping site 🙂 I plan on sharing it with my friends and colleagues!

    Best regards and Happy Running,
    PeggyAnn

  2. Tom says:

    I’ve gotta agree with this one and I always snicker when I hear things like “hills are disguised speed work” (which I’ve read in a running magazine). I know this because I run tons of hills and am relatively fast on them (given how sorry slow I am on the flats, not relative to *other* runners).

    I run hills because that’s the terrain available to me, but though I can run hills way better than I could when I lived down on the flats, my speed on the flats is much slower than when I ran flats a lot.

    I think that running long hilly trails teaches you to slow down your stride rate a little and to shorten your stride length a lot, neither of which is conducive to speed. I’m not a serious runner and certainly not a researcher, but this article definitely makes sense to me.

  3. Funny how even common sense things can be argued… or confused. By the way, you’re getting the best out of your training for the world you’re in up there in Yosemite area. Coming from the Sonoran desert area which is flat unless you travel to the mountains around us I won’t want to race you in the mountains!
    Coach Dean

  4. Tom says:

    By the way, I subscribed to your RSS feed. I really like your articles. Great stuff.

  5. Michael Chee says:

    Interesting comments! Most of the learning comes from actual experiences made from personal trainings. I’ve been coaching young runners and I myself run about 40 to 50 miles a week. Hill runs are very strenghtening for the legs and endurances for longer runs. I’ve done them in the past and has given me time off my 1/2 and full marathons! I’ve seen improvements in our cross-country team too. It’s always hard to do them , but the results are excellent and contributes to stepping in up in your game! So don’t just watch the results..try it for yourself.

  6. Corey says:

    Great Information! I’ve been running up some steep hills for 8 months and at times I feel I’ve had some incredible speed. I’ve always sprinted up the hills where I live and I feel I run faster afterwards because I give it my all. I also run at a slower pace to catch my breathe if needed.

    I have now discovered the back hills where I live and I have so far I’ve ran up the hills twice. These hills are extremely steep hills and my pace has slowed down. I am truly worried I am going to lose speed so after I run up in the hills I switch from my barefoot shoes to my street running shoes and push myself for speed on flat land. I feel running the extreme steep hills will allow me overtime to run longer, harder and help my FORM. Will running up really steep hills help my running FORM? I also run with 20 LBS on my back at least 3 times a week. I feel I know how to get my speed back but will it be very difficult if I build up to many muscles?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Corey,
      First without knowing your goals I can’t offer complete feedback. For instance if you are training for something like the Imogene Pass run – you are on the right track. If you are training for a trail race… maybe. If you are training for a marathon… most likely not. If you are training for road racing or track… not so much.
      That being said, running a fast repeat on flat ground after some hill work or before it is a good idea. I integrate that approach regularly with my runners.
      Weight vest – unless you are working on being a sprinter… you are FAR more likely to injure yourself or develop poor running form as a result of the weight.
      Running hard steep hills will make you strong and slow.
      Running steep hills will more than likely hurt not help your form – you strain too much and THAT is the opposite fo what you want in order to have good form.
      If you use steep hills (8%+ grade) you should be doing VERY short reps (10-25 seconds)… and working on bounding not just running up them.
      You are better off integrating moderate inclines (3%) and run them at your 5K race pace over reps of 400-800 meters.
      The kind of training you are doing will build general strength for sure. It’s all resistance training. But it is unlikely to “build” muscles in a way that will be bulky and slow you down because it is being done in a running fashion and not in a gym lifting weights.

  7. Corey says:

    So you know where my mind is…

    I’ve had 3 back surgeries and two screws in my back. I thought I was going to have to have surgery number #4. I’ve had back problems for 25 years! If I bent over in the wrong place my back would go out and sometimes I would be in bed for weeks not being able to walk. I’ve had nerve pain and every other imaginable pain a person with lower back problems would have. Above my right Knee has been dead for 10 years along with a straight spine. I also had knee problems and wore knee pads in the beginning of my running. I would try to do lunges and I thought my knees felt like they were going to explode, so I stopped do them.

    I stretched for one year from 2-3 hours every other night. My flexability has really improved but I still have a much more stretching to do and I do less now because I put more time into running and swimming. I started running in November of 2012 and the 3 weeks ago I went 18 miles and ran an average speed of 12 according to my GPS phone. Hopefully it was right? I will tell you my goals soon…I am not having back pain anymore!

  8. Ringo says:

    Good thing I just found this as I normally run on a relatively flat area, and I just started running hills at a moderate pace since I do find that when I am racing in a pack that I am always the slower going up hills, but I am usually the quickest going down. I will stick to hill repeats from now on.

    Thanks for posting!

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