Hills training for Runners.

We often hear about “hills sessions” but it is difficult to navigate as this natural tool offers an infinite combination of kind of work.  

Since Zatopek, the forerunner of splitting training (“fartlek”) in the 1950s, elite athletes have used this constant in their training. If the training interval has proven its worth, what about the hills training ? 

Whether it’s Sebastien Coe, Hicham El Gerrouj or more recently Julien Wanders and the Ingebrigsten brothers, we find this common denominator in their training. But these athletes do not necessarily use the same methods.

The hills session can be very varied, and differ depending on:

– The degree of steepness 

  • Duration (race time, distance)
  • The intensity of the effort  
  • The total volume of the session 
  • Its segmentation (blocks, repetitions)
  • Ground quality (road, track, gravel road)
  • Recovery (duration, active or passive)
  • The execution instruction (frequency, amplitude, contrasts of paces quickly released quickly)

These variables can then be used to act on different sectors such as:

  • The Strength
  • Acceleration capacity

– Pure speed

  • The development of lactic resistance (PAL, CAL)
  • The VO2 Max (work around 90 to 110% MAS)
  • Ventilatory thresholds (SV2, SV1)
  • The “tempo run” or active endurance
  • Fundamental endurance

Why use this process, and especially how?

I. Multiple benefits

An INSEP study of a group of 9 top athletes published in 2003 provides scientific evidence of the benefit of hills sessions. It was carried out on well-trained subjects by sifting through their heart rate, respiratory frequencies, lactate level, ground contact times, frequency and range of strides (3). 

“Less soliciting” sessions

Discussions in the study support that a flat 5x600m session is more “soliciting” than a hill session on an identical effort time (5x500m r-1’30). The lactatemia analysis shows higher rates on the flat (12 mmo/l) compared to the work done in hills (8mmol/l). The advantage of working in the hills would therefore have the advantage of leaving less mark on the body.  

At the 400m symposium in Orleans in 2013, Bruno Gajer, who covered this study, explained the less soliciting impact of hills sessions on the body compared to similar sessions on track. According to Gajer, this advantage allows him to place a session at D+1 the next day, without fear of too much fatigue for the body. 

My field experience as a coach allows me to join him in this analysis. Hills training helps to inflate the weekly workload, especially during the land and development periods with steep slopes that force the athlete to run in an upset way, less quickly. 

The “traces” are even less important than in the hills, the speed of movement is lower. According to J-C Volmer these sessions bring “a lower risk of injury especially in the posterior thigh muscles, given the lower pace.” With the need to propel itself on the support, the eccentric constraints are less important than on track. The hamstrings, which are very fragile at high speeds, are less stressed. Quadriceps are more concentrated than on the flat, making the athlete less “hurtable”. 

A natural muscle benefit

The study shows that by working in hills the bio-mechanical parameters differ: “ground contact times are longer” with “less amplitude.” However, longer contact times involve a significant muscle strain on the support since the athlete has to make the effort to propel himself. For Bob Tahri, Kenyan athletes use hills as a way to develop muscle strength, “a substitute for weight training” according to Kenyan athlete Nixon Kiprotich. A world-renowned coach, Dr. Rosa sees it as “the best way to develop the quadriceps of his marathon runners” (5).                                                                                                            

In addition, the study shows that the frequency of hills supports is much higher than that of an effort of the same duration on the track. However, with more support at the same time, the overall amount of ground contact times is increased. Running in hills means not only spending more time on support, but also having more support! This may explain why the hills session is very cost-effective in terms of muscle. 

Cardiovascular development as important as on track / on road

The study shows that cardiac solicitation is as much as on a flat field. Researcher Jean-Claude Volmer explains that “the development of VO2 max can be worked on in a hills session run at 85% of the MAS as in conventional split sessions” (4).

Total commitment to moving forward: mental strength and fighting mindset

A hill is a natural obstacle, you must climb it. Going through it quickly is mentally demanding. The suffering may appear more intense than on the flat. The races are slower, fatigue arrives quickly, the feeling of speed is less, which for many is less playful.

As a coach of a group I appreciate that the session in the hills uses different qualities. It can then value athletes who would have had less chance to shine on the track or on the road.

II. Sessions acclaimed by elite athletes

2 x (10x 200m r-1’15) R-4′ , the short EDM session of the Ingebrigsten brothers

In the web documentary series “Team Ingebrigsten”, brothers Henrik, Jakob and Filip can be seen regularly performing hill sessions, on a regular, rolling slope (about 5-7%), all year round. 

Placed in the middle of winter, the 2x session (10x 200) is scheduled on Saturday by coach Gjert Ingebrigsten. Here’s a typical example of their training week in winter.

In the heart of a micro-cycle with a high kilometre volume (nearly 180km per week) we observe that this session is undoubtedly the most intense and qualitative of the week. It is part of Saturday, contrasting with the longest release scheduled on Sunday. As a coach, I also find it wise to schedule a rhythmic hills session on Saturday, when the athlete is on weekends, rested, and available during the day to “go fast”. This session has the advantage of leaving little trace in order to follow up the next day with another key session, which can be a long exit including different forms of work at the threshold depending on the period.                                                                                   

The Ingebrigsten brothers’ session can be carried out in winter, with the intention of running on a pace slightly higher than the VMA (the recovery on the trot to the starting point ranges between 1′ and 1’20 over 200m, which is enough to start on an intensity close to the VMA). On the field I particularly appreciate being able to mix a block of 10x200m r-tro with another block on a different intention. It can be a faster and less repetitive block, consisting for example of 2x150m – 3x 100m – 4 x 80m r-1’30 on the trot, trying to mark a change of intent gradually in the block. The courses are run faster than the 200m of the previous block. 

Working on medium and long portions

When conditions allow it, the hills can be used to make intermittent on medium and long portions (400m to 1000m).

However, you must have a long continuous climb at your disposal, since recovery time does not allow you to start again. 

This may include moving from average distances to longer distances at the beginning of the season. 

E.g:

  • 4x 1’30 r-1′ – 4x 1’15 r-30”
  • 6x 2′ r-1′ 
  • 5×3′ r-1’30
  • 2′ – 4′ – 3′ – 2×2′ r’1’/2’/1’30/1′

Two-time Olympic 1500m champion in 1980 and 1984, Briton Sebastien Coe regularly repeated 800m with a vertical drop. In the documentary Born to Run, he is seen following his father’s car on a 6x 800m r-1’30 session, with every 800m being swallowed in almost 2′!  These sessions are among the “most difficult of his training”.”    
Find it here : youtube

Boosting your speed

The hills help to stimulate the acceleration and speed of the runner by playing with runs from 30m to 120m (sufficient recovery 2 to 5 degrees). The degree of the slope can range from 5 to 10-12% for short sprints. This kind of work, very similar to that of the sprinter, can be introduced upstream in the preparation of the runner to prepare his future sessions of speed on track. 

The hills sprints can abseil after an endurance session or a jog to technically work the placement, on a dynamic pace. This process, well known to elite athletes, is used for example several times a week by Julien Wanders after one-hour outings, especially in the run-up to competitions. 

Here is an excerpt from his training diary in the winter of 2018, preceding his record at the Barcelona half marathon. He runs 3 times in hills in 5 days, over three different distances:

  • “Footing 1h in 4’16/km – 10x 100m in r-trot rating” on 21/01/18 
  • “Footing 1h in 3’55/km – 7x30m in odds” on 29/01/18.  
  • “Footing 9km in 4’11/km – 10x 65” on the r-2’30” rating on 1/02/18                                     

Little hills also offer the advantage of playing on different racing intentions such as amplitude or frequency work, in confrontation, like sprinters.

E.g: 

  • 3x60m – 3x80m – 2x120m r-3′ Intention: amplitude/frequency/ fast released.
  • 6x30m – 5x50m – 3×120m session illustrated on video by the sprinters from Aix, with the European champion Christophe Lemaitre exercising on contrasts frequency / amplitude after a warm-up of athletic ranges in hills.               
    You will find the video here

Contrast by mixing intentions in the same session 

The hills offer an infinite possibility of sitting construction. I think it’s wise to use them to build full sessions, looking to work on different streams. In the same session you can introduce long portions at reduced speed, then medium routes to work around the MAS, and finish on short sprints to energize the session.

Ex: (3×2′ r-1′) (8x 200m r-trot) (5x 100m r-2′) R-5′ between the blocks. On this mixed session the intensity increases in the three different blocks, marking important contrasts. This session can be part of the heart of winter, in a cycle of land development. Finishing with 100m allows the athlete to finish quickly, simulating a race finish thanks to the action of pre-fatigue.

At what point of the season should the hills sessions be schedule ?

The hills sessions can be used all year round. 

The hills training takes place from November until the beginning of May in its MAS development form if the main objective is in July” (J-C Volmer).

At the beginning of the season, you can use steep slopes, at reduced speed, promoting muscle work (general preparation and land). The surface can be an irregular path, allowing a natural proprioceptive work on the support, which can be useful for cross country.

But to go up a steep slope all year round would be detrimental to the stride. A steep slope can disrupt the stride in its track-specific bio-mechanical performance. Practiced too often, I think it can risk deconstructing the natural stride. As the season evolves I recommend favouring more rolling courses with gentler slopes (5-7%) to allow the athlete to perform a gesture closer to the one he will have in competition. We will look for a steady and smooth slope for ideal athletic propulsion. In the spring, the coasts will then serve as a transition to gradually bring the specific speed sessions to the track. Then they will remain present in the form of a recall in a competitive period (May/June, for a major goal in the summer).

Conclusion

The hills sessions can be used all year round by playing on the different variables that make up his session (slope, intensity, recovery, nature of the ground). Be careful, however, not to want to become the “champion of the hills”. The hills sessions are an ally but not a miracle cure. They should be cleverly insert as a support in the training. If they are involved in improving the race economy, it is necessary to make sure that they do not come too against the specific bio-mechanics of the long-distance and middle-distance runner.

If you want further explanations and concrete examples of hills use you can download “The Little Guide to Hill Racing”. These little guides are on sale to help us finance the site, so if you like our work, support us!

Jérémie Ghibaudo

Bibliography

(1) https://www.persee.fr/doc/insep_1241-0691_2003_num_34_1_1751

(2) https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2014/05000/The_Effects_of_Incline_and_Level_Grade.16.aspx

(3) “Comparative analysis of different VO2 max development sessions” by B.Gajer, C.Hanon, D.Lehénaf, J-C Volmer, 2003 Insep Papers

(4) https://www.lepape-info.com/entrainement/entrainement-running/progresser/les-bienfaits-du-travail-en-cotes-pour-les-coureurs/

(5) The Secrets of Training Kenya, B.Tahri J. Sordello.