Hills can make or break a runner. Some love them, others despise them. When it comes to road or trail, the runner who trained on hills is usually the stronger, more prepared runner.
The best way to boost your climbing legs and lungs is to add a healthy dose of elevation gain to your training. I’m talking hill repeats, long hilly runs, and vert-focused climbs — they’ll all do the trick. However, if you really want to crush your competition, it’s not only the hill you should train for, but also what comes right after the hill.
I learned this workout from my high school cross-country coach Jim McCoach (yes, really). Coach McCoach would always tell us the battle isn’t the hill but the minutes that follow the hill. He taught me that if you really want to break your competition, throw in a surge starting at the crest of the hill, right when they’re exhausted and least expecting it.
The key is to avoid going too hard up the hill, so you have enough energy to surge at the top. It’s OK to let your competition gain distance on you going up. With a good surge at the top, you’ll be able to catch them and make up ground.
One of the biggest reasons this tactic is so successful is because virtually no runners expect someone to pick up the pace after the hill is over. Most runners need a minute or so to catch their breath and recover from the hill.
Multi-Benefit Run Workout
This workout is what I call a tactical workout, meaning its primary purpose is to learn skills. Sure, it’s great for short trail races, cross-country, and hilly road races. But it also makes for a fun, faster session for ultrarunners. There are two ways you can do it: hill repeats, or fartlek-style as part of a hilly run.
If you’re doing it as hill repeats, find a hill that would take you roughly 1 minute to run up, followed by a relatively flat section you can run fast for 1 minute.
If you’re not a fan of hill repeats, the fartlek version is for you. Pick one of your hilliest runs. Every time you reach the top of a hill, throw in a 1- to 2-minute surge at roughly 5K pace before settling back into your normal running pace. This will make the run more or less a fartlek, but the fartlek starts at the top of each hill.
Hill Repeat Running Workout
- Warmup: 1-2 miles starting at an easy pace and progressing to a moderately hard pace
- Run uphill (4-8% grade) at a moderate pace for roughly 1 minute; once you reach the crest of the hill, surge to roughly 5K pace for 1 minute
- Run for 2 minutes easy back to the start of the hill
- Repeat step 2 6-10 times depending on ability level
- Cooldown: 1-2 miles at an easy pace
Fartlek-Style Running Workout
- Use the first 1-3 miles as a warmup, starting at an easy pace and progressing to a moderately hard pace
- As you crest each hill, surge at roughly 5K for 1-2 minutes depending on the length of the hill
- Repeat these surges after each hill for the remainder of your run
As with any hard run, this workout is extremely taxing on the body. Refueling with a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio shortly after the run ensures your body gets the nutrients it needs to rebuild and recover.
My favorite post-long-run fuel is Endurox R4. It’s a tasty powder mix that’s easy on the stomach and has a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio.