Running sprints at a steep angle can do a lot. "Adding a hill or a grade forces gravity to work more," says Brian MacKenzie, author of Power Speed Endurance: A Revolutionary Approach to High Performance Endurance Training. "You place more load on what you're doing. That requires you to run more mechanically efficiently and it requires more out of your cardiorespiratory system."
It’s strength training without the weights, and then some. Hill sprints help strengthen lower back muscles, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves, while training VO2 max and increasing top-end speed. The added muscle and improved efficiency should help reduce the risk of injury and improve times for that upcoming winter marathon or cross country ski race. Here’s how to do them right.
Find Your Spot
Coach Jack Daniels of the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project suggests nothing longer than 600 meters. That's a long hill. The Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill is roughly 600 meters at a 4.5 percent grade. To get the benefits of hill sprints, you’ll need a spot with a minimum four percent grade and a max of 25 percent. Start on a hill with a minimum six percent grade, which should force proper running mechanics by making you lean forward and run over your feet. Go to a treadmill and raise the grade to six percent if you’re having trouble imagining the angle.
Set Time and Distance
Five percent of an athlete's total weekly mileage should be taken up by sprints, according to Daniels. Someone running 30 miles a week should run hill sprints for 1.5 of those miles. It's similar in theory and practice to speedwork on a track. Daniels says 200-meter sprints are a good distance for beginners because they are long enough to get a solid workout but short enough to maintain proper form. MacKenzie suggests planning workouts based on time. Start by sprinting up an eight to 12-percent grade for 45 seconds at between 70 to 80 percent of full effort. On a steeper hill, he advocates for 10- to 15-seconds sprints at 90 to 100 percent effort. Holding proper form is more difficult on a steeper hill, so you want to run for a shorter period of time.
Sweat the Technique
Perfect form requires shorter strides than normal 5k race pace. The steeper the hill, the shorter the strides should be. Keep your torso upright. Pump your arms quickly to help generate and maintain upward momentum. The balls of your feet should hit directly under your chest. You're running wrong if your quads start quivering, your foot gets out in front of your chest, your heel strikes first, or your torso slumps forward past your knees. If your form breaks down at any point, stop. Improper technique, aside from leading to injury, can reduce the benefits of a hill sprint. "If you are doing heel striking or other unfavorable stuff, you have to work harder and will get shut down sooner," MacKenzie says.
Take Time Off
For every one second you sprint, recover for three seconds. "I also have them do downhill [which increases stride turnover]," MacKenzie says. Lean forward with your vision focused on the bottom and work on a mid-foot strike. Control your speed by shortening your stride, not by fighting gravity, leaning back, and landing on your heel. Start with three or four sprints up and down. "Run hard up," MacKenzie says. "Recover. Run hard down. Recover. Repeat."
Switch Things Up
After a few weeks, you should notice your fitness increasing, your breathing getting easier for longer, and your leg muscles growing. Daniels suggests only increasing distance every third or fourth week. "Don't run six one week, then seven the next week, and then eight," he says. "Run six for a few weeks, then go to 10. You want to let the body adjust to a certain amount of stress before you increase the stress."
MacKenzie offers another way to know when to increase your workout. If you start out running his recommended grade of eight to 12 percent for 45 seconds, pay attention to distance. When you start exceeding the initial distance by 15 percent, increase the steepness of the hill by two to four percent or increase the amount of time you are running by 10 seconds. If neither option is available, MacKenzie says to decrease the recovery time to two and a half to one, then two to one.