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The great paradox of uphill running is that we can get faster and faster, but hills will always be slow. It’s the nature of relative expectations. Even for world-class climbers, the fastest uphill paces are still slower than anything they do on flats. That’s why uphills can be such a window into the soul. The effort is harder, the pace is slower. Gravity sucks, and it sucks consistently.
How do you respond? The natural response might be self-judgment or existential despair. Wanting to improve is a valid goal, but so often it morphs into an athlete thinking they are not enough just as they are. As the lactate accumulates and the ground barely moves, hills can turn into a stress test on self-acceptance. The whole time, that sucker is screaming, YOU CAN’T WIN.
This article is about getting the physical tools to politely respond. “Gravity, with all due respect, go screw yourself.”
This article is about getting the physical tools to politely respond. “Gravity, with all due respect, go screw yourself.
Let’s go over the basic physiological principles of climbing before getting into the workouts. Yes, I can’t help but be like one of those chicken recipes online that does a dramatic reading of the Magna Carta before getting to the ingredients. Disclaimers: different things work for every athlete; health and happiness are most important; we may be living in a simulation designed by a Vitamin D-deficient computer programmer.
Principle 1: On uphills, there is more internal mechanical work and output at the joints.
A 2016 review article in Sports Medicine found that relative to level running, uphill running “is characterized by a higher step frequency, increased internal mechanical work, shorter swing/aerial phase duration, and greater duty factor.” Important note: they said doody.
Also, interestingly, duty factor essentially means the foot is on the ground longer between strides. That combines with an increased power output at the joints to make uphill running more about muscular strength than flat running, which relies more on biomechanical efficiency. You can think about it logically: a great cyclist with wonderful power output may be a good climber in running, particularly on steep uphills. In Boulder, for example, some of the fastest climb times on the 1.2-mile, 1400-feet-vert Mount Sanitas are held by cyclists and skimo athletes. But put the same athletes on flats, and they’ll likely suffer relative to running specialists.
In addition, even fast hiking is usually lower output than uphill running intervals except on the steepest grades. The specific biomechanical and neuromuscular adaptations of hiking don’t require a ton of training to start reaching a plateau.
Takeaway: Muscular output matters, and increasing power output should directly improve climbing ability, including when hiking.
Principle 2: Uphill running economy and level ground running economy are correlated.
A 2018 article in the Journal Of Applied Physiology found that uphill running economy and level running economy had a high correlation of 0.91. In other words, runners that are fast on flats should be fast on ups, and vice versa. That finding seems in slight contradiction to Principle 1 since uphill running involves different biomechanics. Shouldn’t athletes be better at one or the other if there are possible tradeoffs in specific adaptations?
The study authors theorize that the correlation has to do with most athletes doing a range of terrain in the context of normal training. Anecdotally, I have seen some amazing climbers come from places like Florida and mountain-running champions come straight from track racing. So it’s clear that getting faster can lead to better climbing.
What I have seen as a coach is that if an athlete focuses on climbing at the exclusion of developing speed, they usually slow down long-term.
The complication is how this all fits in with long-term growth. We know from training theory that athletes can focus on level-ground running economy and improve their speed over decades. The question is whether it works the other way—does a focus solely on vert and climbing also improve flat running over many years? The study in a vacuum would indicate yes, since there was correlation in both directions. But my guess is that if we conducted a study over a decade, the answer would be no.
What I have seen as a coach is that if an athlete focuses on climbing at the exclusion of developing speed, they usually slow down long-term. A possible explanation is that most climbing on trails involves obstacles like rocks and turns, reducing power output and possibly mechanical efficiency, particularly in longer climbs. In addition, climbing is slower by definition, with greater muscle activity but less forward motion. There may be a cap on how much that can improve before stagnating.
Takeaway: Speed also matters if the goal is faster climbing, especially for long-term growth over multiple training cycles.
Principle 3: Most athletes will reduce output substantially as hill intervals get longer.
The higher muscular demand of uphill running could lead to slightly higher rates of fatigue accumulation in some athletes. My wife/co-coach Megan and I have done some cool anecdotal tests of athletes involving 8-minute hill intervals and 8-minute flat intervals, and almost every athlete we have seen performs with a faster grade-adjusted pace on the flats (though that variance sometimes falls away for a single all-out effort). Make the same interval 1 minute, and the hills usually involve higher output. That likely has to do with muscle fatigue from the mechanical work of hills, whereas flats are a more balanced stress.
A 2019 study on the training predictors of long-distance performance found that longer intervals over a few minutes had less correlation with growth over time.
A 2019 study on the training predictors of long-distance performance found that longer intervals over a few minutes had less correlation with growth over time, and it’s possible that the principles are related. We see that around 3 minutes on intervals, athlete outputs start to drop, particularly on hills but also on flats, so most of our athletes do longer efforts as tempos rather than repeats. This may all be superstitious numerology, in which case feel free to insert a mental picture of the guy on the History Channel talking about hills.
Takeaway: Only do longer hill intervals if they don’t require your form to break down to a jog.
One of these days I will write an article that isn’t as long as “A Promised Land,” but it appears that day isn’t today. With those principles to structure the discussion, let’s get to the workouts!
As always, do 10-to-20-minute warm-ups and cool-downs of easy running. Unless noted, the ideal average grade of hills is 5-8%, where most athletes will optimize faster-running output. But have fun with it based on the terrain available to you. And incorporate the 3-Minute Mountain Legs routine for strength benefits.
Level running economy workouts
These workouts are designed to develop level ground running economy, balancing speed stress with enough recovery to avoid inefficiency.
15 x 1 minute fast with 1 minute easy recovery, 3 minutes easy, 4 x 30 second steeper hills fast with 2 minutes easy recover
The classic 1/1 workout is the best place to start if you are new to structured workouts. Aim loosely for 5K effort over flat or rolling non-technical terrain to provide a good speed stimulus without overdoing it. There is a slight VO2 max stress as well, but the main goal is not to improve VO2 max as a raw number. That number optimizes pretty quickly, so is not a good goal in advanced training. Instead, the goal is to improve output at VO2 max, working on running economy. As velocity at VO2 max improves, climbing will improve too.
The hills at the end add a muscular power stimulus to level up the adaptations. You can do this type of workout almost every week no matter what distances you are racing. Speed up the recovery minutes to a float for a stronger aerobic emphasis.
8 x 2 minutes fast with 90 seconds easy recovery, 3 minutes easy, 4 x 1 minute slight hills fast with 2 minutes easy recovery
This workout is a sneaky little thang. Start around 10K effort and progress as you go, finishing harder, to get the type of all-around mix of aerobic capacity and speed that can lead to breakthroughs or vomit or both. Since the intervals are a bit longer, it’s best to save this workout until you are feeling fit and ready to push without excessive injury risk. The slight hills at the end can be harder.
Hill interval workouts
Now we are really emphasizing the muscular output focus. Each of these workouts will feel almost like the end of a weight-lifting session, where you are moving through sludge to do a relatively small amount of work.
5 x 3 minute hills moderately hard with run back down recovery, 4 x 45 second hills fast with 2 minutes easy recovery
If I could only have one workout to give trail runners for all of eternity, it would be this one. Aim for a moderately hard effort on the hills—given the muscular stress, that will probably feel difficult no matter what exact pace you try to dial in, so go by feel.
If I could only have one workout to give trail runners for all of eternity, it would be this one.
This workout is a major stress for aerobic capacity and power output, with the bonus of being a chance to practice self compassion and toughness. You can do this type of workout anytime in a training cycle, and as close to a race as seven days out. Substitute flat 1-minute intervals at the end if speed is a limiter.
5 x 2 minute hills moderately hard with run back down recovery, 4 x 1 minute steeper hills hard with 2-3 minutes easy recovery
This one is similar, but the steep hills at the end will be cruelly painful in a way that might be best to save until that is part of what you’re looking for. Running: the only sport where calling something cruelly painful might be a compliment.
Combo Workouts Ending With Hills
These combo workouts start with an aerobic focus, before ending with a muscular output focus. They are one of the staples of training plans for pro athletes Megan and I coach because they offer difficult muscular stimuli on top of classic aerobic development workouts.
20-30 minute moderate tempo, 5 minutes easy, 6 x 1 minute hills hard with 2 minutes easy recovery
The tempo around lactate threshold will improve fatigue tolerance—think an effort you could sustain for around 1 hour. The hills add cardiac output and muscular stress on top of that.
6-8 x 3 minutes fast/1 minute easy, 3 minutes easy, 4 x 2 minute hills mod/hard with run down recovery
This one has similar principles, with 3-minute cruise intervals around 10k or 1-hour effort being an efficient aerobic speed stimulus. Backing that thing up like Juvenile with some longer hills mixes in a bit more of an aerobic capacity and muscular endurance stress. Both of these workouts are good in the thick of heavy training.
These are the hardest workouts I ever ask athletes to do, spaced out by at least a few weeks in a long-term training cycle, with plenty of recovery before and after.
10/8/6/4/2 minute steeper hills moderately hard to hard with run down recovery after each, 5 x 30 second steep hills hard with 2 minutes easy recovery
The affectionately-named Hill Beast was developed for world-class skyracers like Meg Mackenzie, and it’s unpleasant. Based on data from our athletes, most will run the middle hills at lower output, likely due to the muscular endurance stress. The steep 30-second hills at the end are just plain mean, but bring in power and cardiac output. Save this one for 10 to 20 days out from a key event with climbing.
5 x 3 minute hills moderately hard with run down recovery, 20 minute moderate tempo ending hard
The aerobic tempo stress after the hills is often less difficult than athletes expect, possibly demonstrating how uphill and level running involve slightly different demands. Aerobically, the body won’t have much more to give at the end, and it can lead to rapid gains in race performances after the body adapts.
No single workout is too important, and you can mix up the elements into your own style. Climbing ability is intertwined with aerobic and speed development, so it takes some time.
But if you’re on the fence about chasing your potential, I vote to give it a try. Stack up these types of workout bricks with a day or two a week of strides and plenty of easy running over variable terrain, and give it time with consistent work and belief.
See what happens. Brick by brick, you are going to build a damn big wall.
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.