Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Let’s go for a quad-crushing journey through the evolution of a training theory via the Hill Beast Workout! This might be fun and informative, or a useless intellectual exercise, much like voting.
I often focus these articles on big, general principles.
But what’s so cool in coaching is finding out ways to apply the general theory to specific athletes at specific times, feeding the subsequent data back into your general model, and doing that over and over until it spits out a unique training approach. All models are wrong, but some are useful. Coaching is about finding all the ways your baseline model might be wrong when applied, and refining the model constantly to be slightly better.
That’s how different coaches can start with similar understandings of physiology and training theory, only to wind up in wildly distant places later. Just this weekend, I saw an athlete in Boulder running backwards up a hill. I’m not sure what happened there, but I’m guessing that a butterfly flapped its wings and sent their coach down a very interesting YouTube rabbit hole. And I think Crossfit might be what happens when a butterfly farts instead.
The iterative development of individual training theories is especially pertinent in trail running, when so many variables go into performance that optimizing for one can mean hurting another, with it all swirling together into different approaches that reach similar outcomes.
The Hill Beast Origin
The Hill Beast workout was first developed in 2017 for superstar Meg Mackenzie. Meg is a world-class athlete whose races were mostly between 2 and 4 hours back then, with quad-burning climbs and quad-shredding descents. These sky races are INTENSE, requiring output that varies from well above lactate threshold on some climbs to aerobic threshold or easier on the more relaxed sections. To put it in track/road terms, it calls on 10k speed at times and 50k endurance at others, sometimes within just a few minutes of each other. Trail running is fascinating because it requires so many skills, and thus requires tons of trade-offs since every skill can’t be optimized at the same time.
So what’s the best way to prepare for these events at the top level of international competition, particularly in the 2 weeks before race day? That’s a question I struggled with, doubting myself into impostor-syndrome holes, where my questioning made coaching feel a bit like trying to dig a tunnel in sand. The problem is that I was zoomed in too far, and I needed to zoom back out to the baseline scientific/theory principles.
It’s always helpful to look at the practices of elite road/track athletes to understand the first principles of training theory, since the margins of performance for those athletes are so narrow. (Just try to separate the performances that are fueled by burritos versus those that are fueled by “burritos.”) And the training leading into the taper window is a spot that training practices sometimes vary from scientific guidelines.
When To Start The Taper
A 2022 study in Sports Medicine–Open on elite training pointed out the major offset: “The general scientific guidelines for effective tapering in endurance sports include a 2- to 3-week period with 40–60% reduction in training volume adopting a progressive nonlinear format, while training intensity and frequency are maintained. However, most long-distance runners do not report a substantial decrease in training volume until the last 7–10 days prior to competition.”
Oh, that’s exciting! I have seen that in coaching too, with extra-long tapers often leading to underperformance.
For elite road/track athletes, tapers can sometimes be even shorter! What about when there are multiple big races, often in close proximity, like the schedule for athletes on the international skyracing circuit? The authors had an answer there, too. “It has also been shown that outstanding performances across a 3-month competition period can be achieved, without tapering for a specific competition, by merely reducing the training substantially in the last 4–5 days prior to each competition.”
The race-week workout is usually a tune-up done 3-5 days before the event (the authors cited 10 x 200 meters at race pace as an example, so a light stimulus that will provide neuromuscular priming without substantial fatigue). But what about the efforts that precede the 7-10 day taper?
That’s the question that motivated The Hill Beast. Most athletes do relatively hard workouts prior to starting their taper, likely due to the neuromuscular and cardiac benefits. I am being intentionally vague with that explanation (I prefer to think I’m “mysterious”) since it’s highly debated. However, my experience to that point indicated that hard workouts to jump-start the taper window were usually beneficial, like the efforts done by road/track athletes.
So Meg needed something difficult. Those track runners usually do their final specific work around race effort, so something specific to the demands of her race would be good too. For skyracing, that meant an effort that would push her above lactate threshold with specific climbing form, while also working on quick descents. We tried different things over a few months, but she kept having her best days with a mini-taper that started 7-10 days after this monstrous workout that would later be called The Hill Beast:
3 miles easy warm-up, 10/8/6/4/2 minute steep hills moderately hard with run down smooth recovery, 2-3 miles easy to easy/moderate cool-down
My hypothesis at the time was that her post-Hill Beast performances (including a podium at the Golden Trail Series) were statistical noise in the broader scheme of training approaches, an N=1 application of theory that only applied to Meg, and maybe to similarly situated athletes doing skyraces. The Hill Beast remained a rarity, mainly for athletes doing intense skyraces and FKT attempts on steep terrain. I kept it in a little box, with most athletes doing more traditional threshold workouts, like those that are common for road marathon runners.
But last year, I saw something interesting. My co-coach Megan had some athletes with stunning breakthroughs (in my objective opinion, she’s the best coach in the world). I went through their Stravas, dissecting what they did in the months leading up to race day, trying to see where it varied from the training theory we talked about at the dinner table. And Coach Megan had been giving Hill Beasts or similar workouts 10-14 days before some key races, including some not-so-steep 50 milers and 100Ks, not just confining it to skyraces.
COOL! More noise, or might that be some signal peeking through? Megan had me do it in my own training, starting with a session 10 days before the Tiger Claw 25 Miler in 2021, and more recently 11 days before the Quicksilver 50k. At both races I felt shockingly good, particularly on steep trails, with little muscle damage from the downhills. In 2022, some of our athletes have done the workout before big 100k wins, 100+ mile FKTs, and shorter race breakthroughs.
The hard part is teasing out correlation and causation and random chance. Prior to big races, Megan and I always try to discuss our expectations for athletes. Over and over, some positive offsets from those expectations followed The Hill Beast or workouts like it involving moderately hard intervals on steep terrain. I went from skeptical to all-in.
Even if not doing the 10/8/6/4/2 design, I now almost always ask athletes to do a steeper workout effort in the 10-17 days before key trail races, even those without substantial vert. And a training element that started as an N=1 experiment based on the background science/theory gradually morphed into a fundamental element of how we approach trail races.
That’s subject to a quadrillion disclaimers.
Perhaps athletes that we are confident can handle this workout are in a great place for their event anyway, and would excel with anything from steep hills to sitting on the couch for 10 days. Maybe it has nothing to do with specific workout design, and more to do with adaptations from a very hard workout at a time when we might have had an athlete doing a full taper before. And most of all, while we know N=1 is meaningless, given the biases and confounding variables we are bringing into our own analyses, N=30 is likely still relatively meaningless, at least from a controlled-study perspective.
The big message of this article is to be open to the patterns you see in training, whether you’re an athlete or a coach. Coaching involves starting with physiology and training theory, which anyone can learn. (While there are disagreements and intricacies in the field, never let anyone discourage you from becoming an expert. You got this!). But the next part is when the magic happens.
You gather data and see patterns, some quantitative and some coming from your gut, feeding it back into your baseline models. Do that with a bunch of data points, and what comes out the other end might look completely different than you expect! That’s why Megan and I tell every coach we mentor that they can be better than we are, and to please tell us what they learn so that we can learn from them.
Breaking Down The Elements
Oh lord, this article was supposed to be about how to do a workout, and it became about something else entirely. It’s like opening a recipe for chicken parmesan and having a chef tell you about why cheese makes your farts smell. So let’s get to the damn recipe!
What is The Hill Beast?
3 miles easy warm-up, 10/8/6/4/2 minute steep hills moderately hard with run down smooth recovery, 2-3 miles easy to easy/moderate cool-down. The ideal hill steepness varies between 10 and 20% grade, trying to run every step even if you have to do it slowly. Focus on good form, pushing the climbing toward 10k effort at the end. At the top of each hill, turn around and run smooth and quick down for recovery. If you feel great, you can even run the cool-down around 50k effort for a major aerobic stimulus. Finish with a protein shake and 5 Hail Marys.
Why is it structured like that?
In experimenting with different designs, Megan and I found that any more hills lead athletes to fading super hard before the last interval. 30 minutes of steep climbing efforts are likely about the maximum possible without dialing things back substantially. It’s better to err on the side of less (like 8/6/4/2) than more. The descending ladder makes it easier mentally and manages the physiological fade. Often, the final 2-minute interval is about the same speed at the initial 10-minute interval, despite it feeling much more difficult. You need to say the Hail Marys due to all the curse words you mutter in the forest.
What are the physiological adaptations?
While the 30 minutes of climbing at and above threshold are important, I think the actual magic is in how the uphill and downhill interact. An athlete likely isn’t going to substantially improve climbing ability from any single workout, let alone a workout 10-14 days before a race. But the science of downhill running indicates that supercompensation stimuli can lead to rapid adaptations that can increase resilience and repeatability. After doing The Hill Beast, I felt like the steep downhills on race day didn’t affect me nearly as much. My guess is that there is something special about the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular adaptations of doing the downhills with such a high internal load from the uphills. It makes you simultaneously taste bile and get weak in the knees, like when you hear about a major media conglomerate deciding to discontinue the print magazine that was your favorite since you were a kid.
When should you do The Hill Beast?
We love it as a taper-starter. For races under 3-4 hours, 7-10 days pre-race is ideal. For races that are 50 miles to 100k and below, 10-12 days before works well, leading into a major training reduction. For 100 miles and beyond, 14-17 days is a sweet spot. Because this workout causes muscle damage (you’ll likely be sore the next day, particularly if you do it on very steep trails), it’s better to err on the side of doing it a bit earlier rather than a bit later.
You can try it at other parts of a training block, but it’s likely to have some fatigue lag that makes it a big investment that may hurt other runs. So whenever you try it, make sure you have a down-period after, whether it’s a taper or slight down week.
What will it feel like?
Like an enema of the soul.
The Hill Beast is tough. And maybe that’s what we’re actually seeing with this workout. In training, it’s impossible to trace interventions to outcomes, since there are 1000 interventions underway at any given time. In our quest to isolate variables, it’s easy to attribute outcomes to things that seem like they’re doing something, whether that’s a hard workout or dietary change or strength routine. The truthiness we feel in our guts can be a great benefit if we keep it in scientific context, or a great curse if we let it guide us to seeking out soul enemas.
But with The Hill Beast at least, I bet some of the benefit is attributable to it being one of the hardest workouts you can do without being forced to dial back effort. You’re a different person when you end the workout than when you began it.
That new you may be ready to absolutely rock a trail race in 10 to 17 days. And if not, feed that data back into your training model for next time.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.