How To Use Hills To Improve Your Running Economy and Running Performance

In my last post I discussed running economy as an important factor affecting running speed and performance.  I also discussed one way to improve your running economy is by incorporating strides into your training program.  There are other ways to improve your running economy as well.

Hill Sprints and Repeats Help Improve Running Economy
With many of the runners that I coach, I incorporate hill sprints and hill repeats early in their training program.  I recommend that hill sprints be performed on a hill or treadmill with ~6-8% incline.  I recommend performing hill sprints one day a week for at least 3-6 weeks before moving into hill repeats.  Hill sprints should last about 8-10 seconds and I recommend at least a 2-3 minute recovery period in between hill sprints.  The recovery may consist of walking down the hill you just sprinted up.  You should increase your speed during the hill sprint until you reach ~85-95% of your maximum effort.  You can start by performing 2-3 hill sprints, keeping in mind that these efforts put a tremendous amount of stress on the muscles and tendons.  Then gradually increase the number of hill sprints to 6-10, adding 1-2 hill sprints each week.  Hill sprints can be used early in a training program and continued throughout depending on your running history and goals.

Hill repeats can last anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds, depending on your fitness level, running history, goals, and where you are in your training program.  I recommend that you perform hill repeats at ~70-80% of your maximum effort on a 4-6% incline.  Also, I recommend a slow jog or walk recovery of 2-5 minutes between hill repeats.  You can start by performing 4-6 hill repeats lasting between 30-45 seconds and then gradually increase the time for your repeats.  I recommend performing hill repeats once per week and spending at least 3-4 weeks on hill repeats depending on your goals.

While performing hill sprints and hill repeats, I recommend leaning slightly forward from the ankles.  Make sure you are not leaning from the waist.  Also, use arm swing to shorten your stride and increase your cadence.

How Do Hill Sprints and Hill Repeats Improve Running Economy?
Hill sprints and hill repeats can enhance your running performance by increasing your stride power and strength.  This results from adaptations in the muscle and nervous system.  Basically, performing hill sprints and repeats increase the amount of muscle you use (number and types of muscle fibers) and how quickly you use muscle fibers (rate at which you recruit motor units, which consist of nerves and all the muscle fibers they signal).  Also, performing hill sprints and hill repeats will stimulate the muscle to contract with greater force and help resist fatigue when you are running at maximal or near-maximal effort.  This can beneficial at the end of an event, as you sprint to the finish, or during the event, to help you power up hills.

Hill sprints can also improve “stride stiffness” increasing stability of the knee, hip, and pelvis.  As a result, this minimizes the amount of impact energy lost through unwanted lateral movement at these joints, while the foot is in contact with the ground.  Thus, more energy is transferred to your body from when your foot contacts the ground, which can be used to propel you forward, which improves your running economy.  So, you get benefits not only when running hills or at the end of an event, but throughout the entire event, which can translate into having a faster finish time!

Hill repeats help build leg strength necessary for improving your running speed, and hill repeat workouts are a great way to transition into speedwork on a track, or other flat surfaces.

Other Ways To Improve Your Running Economy
Due to the stress that hill sprints and hill repeats can put on the body, I generally recommend that they be performed once per week.  Another way to improve your running economy is by using strength training and/or plyometric exercises.  This would include performing strengthening exercises for the muscles that produce force to impact the ground, which would include the glutes and quadriceps.  Strengthening the muscles that provide stability when you have one foot on the ground, such as the glutes, lower back stabilizers, and other muscles that stabilize the hips, pelvis, knee, and foot will also improve your running economy and help you minimize the risk of injury.  There is also benefit in using strengthening exercises to improve running economy because these exercises can be performed multiple times during the week.  Strengthening exercises have other benefits as well, but I’ll save that for another post…

If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comments box.

Just a reminder, if you are planning to run a fall marathon you will want to start your training soon, if you have not already begun.  I recommend dedicating 5-6 months of training to prepare for a marathon, depending on your running history, current fitness level and goals.  If you are running a half marathon, I recommend dedicating at least 4 months to train.  If you need guidance and support in preparation for your event, please contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve your goals.

Until next time, I wish you the best with your training.


Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald Run Faster From the 5k To The Marathon

Road Runners Club of America Coaching Certification Course

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