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How to Improve Strength, Power & Running Speed

Hill sprints improve your power and speed. They increase the strength of your muscles and tendons. And they help to develop the foundational strength needed for greater running fitness.

They are the sprinting equivalent of aerobic base training. And help you build greater speed, strength and power which will transfer to other components of your running.

It’s a workout I’ve used frequently over recent years and have gained real benefits.

In this article we look at:

  • We look at the two types of hill sprints
  • The key benefits of hill sprint workouts
  • How to gain the most from them
  • How to perform the two different hill sprints

What are hill sprints?

They are short, intense sprints run up an incline — normally a moderate (6-8%) or steep incline (>8%). They differ from hill repeats in that they are much shorter and run at full intensity.

For many runners, this is a big step away from the traditional endurance training approach, but don’t let that fool you as there are considerable benefits to gain from adding these into your program.

The two types of hill sprints

We can divide hill sprints into two main types:

  1. Short maximum velocity hill sprints
  2. Speed endurance hill sprints

So, how do these two workouts differ?

Max velocity hill sprints involve running as fast as possible for 8-12seconds, up a moderate to steep incline. This is the classic hill sprint workout that you’re more likely to be familiar with.

Speed endurance hill sprints involve running at a fast (but not quite flat out) intensity for around 20-25seconds, which brings in a speed endurance component. These are more advanced and challenging workout.

We’ll get into the detail of each in a second.

So, why should you include these?…

Why include hill sprint workouts

As endurance runners, we generally avoid training at sprint intensity. After all, we’re not sprinters and we don’t race anywhere near sprint intensity.

The truth is:

Runners should include a range of training speeds. And just as low-intensity exercise is beneficial for endurance, so are sprints.

One major advantage with hill sprints is the combination of speed and strength training. And when you combine strength and speed, you get more power.

It also reduces injury risk by strengthening key running muscles and tendons. And prepares you for track based sprint training workouts.

The benefits of hill sprints

1. Hill sprints increase your strength and power

Hill sprints are a highly specific form of strength training for runners.

Here, it’s the combination of running at speed, combined with the added resistance from gravity, that makes these so effective. This increases the force exerted with every foot strike.

Think of it like lifting weights in the gym, but at much faster speeds and in a very running specific way. Overtime your muscles adapt to this stress and become stronger.

The real benefits from hill sprints come down to three key adaptations:

  • Increased recruitment of slow and fast twitch muscle fibres. This strengthens your muscles and makes them more powerful.
  • Second, individual muscle fibres become stronger and more fatigue resistant.
  • Third, it increases neuromuscular co-ordination, which enhances the way muscles and groups of muscles work together to produce force efficiently.

2. They increase your stride length

Stronger more powerful muscles = longer stride length.

Hill sprints also develop your maximum running cadence.

3. Reduced Injury Risk

Stronger, more fatigue resistant muscles are less prone to injuries. Hill sprints also strengthen connective tissue.

Another factor is the reduced impact during uphill sprints. Compared with horizontal or downhill sprints there’s less impact and reduced stress on your muscles and tendons.

4. Greater running efficiency

Research has showed that hill training can improve running efficiency. This is due to several factors:

  • Improved neuromuscular coordination
  • Stronger and more powerful muscles
  • Stronger muscles and tendons = improved joint stability
  • We also increase muscle stiffness, which improves energy return

5. Hill sprints make you a faster runner

As with running efficiency, they improve running speed on several levels:

First, running fast is all about strength, power, and co-ordinated movements.

Hill sprints improve the strength of your muscles and muscle fibres. Meaning you can generate more force with each contraction. Your muscles also become more efficient at generating force.

But here’s the thing: this doesn’t just make you faster when sprinting, it improves endurance running as well.

Why is that?… The faster your sprint speed is, the easier it feels to run at slower speeds.

Think of it as building up your speed reserve — the difference between your fastest and slower running speeds. The bigger your speed reserve, the easier it is to run at slower (sub-maximal) speeds.

Second, they improve neuromuscular coordination — the coordination between your central nervous system and muscles.

This improves the efficiency and speed of muscle contractions and the coordination between groups of muscles.

Taken together, this means you can exert more power with much greater efficiency.

It also increases muscle stiffness, which enhances your muscle and tendons’ ability to store and use elastic energy.

This is crucial for exercise economy. And improves sprinting speed and the velocity at VO2max.

What hill sprints won’t do…

  • First, they won’t place a huge stress on your aerobic system. So don’t expect to see big increases in your aerobic capacity or VO2 max.
  • Second, you won’t bulk up with muscle. Yes, your muscles will become stronger and more powerful, but that’s because of increased efficiency and coordination. That said, you will gain some lean, functional muscle mass.

How to gain the most from hill sprints

Ok, so now you’re ready to give hill sprints a try.

First, here are a few points to help you gain more from these sessions.

#1 Include a good warm-up

Because of the intensity of these sprints, a proper warm up is essential.

A good approach is to include some dynamic warm-up exercises (squats, lunges, etc), drills and accelerations.

If you’re not familiar with these, or lack confidence in performing these, then running a series of short accelerations is another option. 

For the accelerations, follow this simple formula:

  • Warmup with some low intensity running prior to the accelerations.
  • Run the accelerations on the hill you will use for the sprints. This keeps the warm up specific to hill running and the gradient of the hill. Why is that important?… Your muscles work slightly differently when running up a gradient, so it’s essential that the warm-up reflects this.
  • Run approximately 4-5 x 6-10second accelerations.
  • Increase the effort across each acceleration. For example:

– Acceleration 1 = 6-7 out of 10 effort

– Acceleration 2 = 7-8 out of 10 effort

– Acceleration 3 = 8-9 out of 10 effort

– Acceleration 4 = 9 out of 10 effort

#2 Keep the intensity at maximum, or very close

To get the most from this session, you need to run at your maximum effort level — or very near to it. There is a slight difference between running maximal and speed endurance hill sprints — we’ll look at that in a second — however, we run both at very close to maximal intensity.

So, unlike nearly every other endurance session, we don’t want to be pacing these efforts, just run them as fast as possible.

This brings us on to point 3.

#3 Keep these short

The good news is they’re only short:

  • Short Hill sprints = 8-12seconds
  • Speed endurance hill sprints = ~20-25seconds

In fact, we need these to be short — too long and you won’t be running at sprint intensity.

You might even find this a welcome break from your normal endurance training!

#4 Recovery is a key factor

As we’re focusing on intensity, you need to prioritise recovery between efforts.

  • Aim for 2-3minutes of very easy jogging (or rest) between each maximal sprint.
  • And just over 3 minutes for speed endurance hills

As endurance runners, it’s always tempting to reduce the recovery. This is one workout where that doesn’t work.

As an example, I often jog for 2 minutes between these and then add on a further minute of complete rest, before each sprint.

#5 Don’t run hill sprints when fatigued

Hill sprints are all about speed and power, so don’t run them when you are tired. While this won’t do you any harm, you’ll limit the training benefit from this session — so what’s the point?

With that in mind, don’t run these the day after a harder workout. And, to get the most from these, try to avoid running them at the end of a longer run.

Now, let’s move on to the hill sprint workouts…


HILL SPRINT WORKOUTS

Earlier in this article, I touched on the two main types of hill sprint workouts.

  1. Maximum Intensity Hill Sprints
  2. Speed endurance hills

In this part we’ll look at the two methods and learn when and how to use these.


1. Short Hill Sprints

Here the focus is on developing maximum strength, power and speed. To achieve this we need to run as fast as possible.

As we can only sustain this for very brief periods, these need to be very short. And for most runners, the optimum duration should only be around 8-12 seconds.

So, why are these so short?… Most runners can only sustain maximum running speed for brief time periods — only around 4-6seconds. We run these a few seconds longer to allow you time to accelerate to full speed.

As a distance runner, you may think that you can hold sprint speed for longer.

The truth is… sprinters are far better at holding top end speed than endurance runners.

So don’t extend these beyond 10-12 seconds.

The Hill Sprint Workout

  1. Ensure you include a proper warmup, with dynamic warm-up exercises, drills and accelerations.
  2. You can use either a moderately steep incline (~6-8% gradient), or a steep gradient (~8-10%)*. Steeper gradients reduce cadence but increase the strength and power component. Whereas, moderate gradients allow a faster cadence but with a reduced strength and power component.
  3. Either mark out a set distance (my preferred option), or use a countdown timer. Either way, the hill should take no longer than 12seconds to run at maximum effort.
  4. Allow, 2-3minutes recovery between each interval. Or, as long as required to maintain your highest work rate. You can either jog or have complete rest.
  5. Complete 6-10 hill sprints — depending on your running fitness level, conditioning and training experience.
  6. Ensure you include a good cool down afterwards.

*My preference is to use a steeper gradient of around 10% — you can read why in the following article, where I look at the best gradients for hill sprints.

How many sprints should you complete?

This depends on your training experience, conditioning and running fitness.

Anywhere from 6-10reps is effective — the quality (intensity) of these reps is more important than the volume.

The truth is: there is little difference between completing 6 or 10 reps (providing you run these correctly).

What if you’ve never run these before?

If you’re new to this type of training, then take a few weeks to build up the intensity, and allow your body to adapt.

Here’s an example 6-week progression for someone new to hill sprints:

  • 1st Week: 2-4 reps x 6-8 seconds (8 out of 10 effort), 2-3mins jog (or rest) recovery
  • 2nd Week: 4-6 reps x 6-8 seconds (8/9 out of 10 effort), 2-3mins jog (or rest) recovery
  • 3rd Week: 4-6 reps x 8-10 seconds (9 out of 10 effort), 2-3mins jog (or rest) recovery
  • 4th Week: 4-6 reps x 8-10 seconds (near maximum effort), 2-3mins jog (or rest) recovery
  • 5th Week: 6-8 reps x 8-10 seconds (near maximum effort), 2-3mins jog (or rest) recovery
  • 6th Week: 6-8 reps x 10-12 seconds (near maximum effort), 2-3mins jog (or rest) recovery

How many sessions should you include per week?

Again, this varies depending on your training experience, your training focus and running goals.

For most runners, one weekly session is effective. Especially as part of the build-up/preparation for more intense training phases.

Later in training phases, you may find that one session every two weeks is enough for maintenance of strength, power and speed.

An important factor, with hill sprints: they work best when used consistently.

They’re an important session for long-term development. So they should feature throughout the training year.

A point to note: don’t expect big short-term results.

They are a slow burner and the benefits accumulate overtime.

When should you include short hill sprint workouts?​

As mentioned earlier, don’t run these the day after a more intense session. You won’t hit full intensity and they will be less effective.

If you’re not used to this intensity, then be cautious initially, and leave 1, or 2 easier days either side of the workout.

Often, they can be effective when used the day before an aerobic interval, or threshold/tempo run session.


2. Speed Endurance Hill Sprints

Before diving into these speed endurance hills, it’s important to recognise that these are a more advanced and more challenging workout than the short hill sprints. For most runners the short hill sprints will be enough.

By extending the hill sprints to around 20-25seconds we add in a speed endurance component. And this can be great preparation for track based speed endurance workouts.

The extra 10-15seconds makes these physiologically much more stressful. So we need to use these carefully within a training block.

These work best when used during key training phases, or as part of specific training blocks.

However, when used correctly, just a few weeks of these can bring significant performance benefits.

The speed endurance hill sprint workout

  1. Include a good warm-up, with dynamic warm-up exercises, drills and accelerations.
  2. You can use either a moderately steep incline (~6-8% gradient), or a steep gradient (~8-10%) — see the previous notes on this.
  3. Each rep should take approximately 20-25seconds to complete, when run at close to the maximum sustainable intensity.
  4. Allow, 3-5minutes recovery between each interval. Or, as long as required to maintain the work rate during the hill sprint. 
  5. Complete 5-8 sprints – depending on your running fitness level, conditioning and training experience.
  6. Ensure you include a good cool down afterwards.

As with the maximal hill sprints, my preference is to use a steeper gradient of around 8-10%, or sometimes slightly steeper.

So, when, why, and how often should you use these?

As I mentioned these work well during specific phases of training. You wouldn’t normally use them throughout a training block, or season. I find these useful as part of a build up to more specific speed endurance track workouts.

In particular, they work well when included as part of a specific training block where the focus is on developing strength, power and speed endurance.

Here, just a 3-4 week block (one session per week) can yield quite significant improvements in strength and power.

As these are physically challenging, only include these when you have a good level of conditioning, and are already including hill sprints. You also wouldn’t want to include these more than once a week and unlike the short hill sprints these require an easier day afterwards.

In summary…

Hill sprints are an excellent way to develop strength, power and efficiency.

Short hill sprints are a great workout that can be used year round. And are suitable for most runners, from new runners to elite level.

Speed endurance hill sprints are an excellent way to build upon the benefits of hill sprints. They’re more challenging and therefore more suited to advanced runners.

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