How to use hills to massively improve your running

On Sunday I posted a link to another blogger who was talking about the importance of hill training for ultra-runners. In fact, as I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of hill training for almost any long-distance runner. I genuinely love hills, and I particularly love that I’m almost always overtaking people on them. It’s not because I’m particularly fit or fast, it’s simply because I make hills a big part of my training. Even in very flat races, having done some hill training seems to have made a big difference to my speed overall.

So, here are three thing I have done that have worked for me:

Run up a mountain

The simplest kind of hill training is just to run up a mountain, or a large hill, or even a small hill. The pros are that it will really test your endurance; it will work your heart, lungs, and mental robustness; and if you choose the right hill or mountain you should get some spectacular views as you go.


The cons are that it requires a decent mountain, which not everyone has to hand, and it’s not necessarily the most effective kind of training to be doing on a regular basis. It will make you fit, and probably faster, but you won’t be running at anything like your race speed, so it’s not necessarily training yourself to run at the right pace.

Hill sprints

These are by far my favourite way of doing some hill training, and much more practical and convenient than running up a mountain (though generally slightly less scenic). First off, I find a hill. Any hill will do, and obviously this workout is going to depend a lot on the length and gradient of the hill, but I try to use something at least a couple of hundred metres long, and with a gradient of maybe 1/15. It doesn’t need to be super-steep, even a small gradient will be tough, and I’m sprinting up it remember.

Anyway, I do a gentle warm up jog of a mile or so, and get to the bottom of the hill.

Then: step 1 – sprint up the hill. Properly sprint, so I physically cannot go any faster. Stop at the top.

Step 2 – jog slowly down. As slow as I like without walking

Step 3 – turn around. Go back to step 1.

Gradient, pace, heart rate

Repeat maybe five times. The last one should be a real struggle. If it isn’t, I do one more. Then I jog very gently home, be sure to stretch well.

That’s it really. The key is to really sprint, then use the jog down to recover, but not take any other breaks, except perhaps for a quick slurp of water as I turn around.

I like this one because it can be done in only 20 minutes or so but is still a decent workout if you’re pushed for time. It combines short high intensity intervals with a bit of gradient for extra whammy, and really gets your heart rate up. It’ll make you much quicker and definitely make you more confident when you hit hills during your races, but it may not do a huge amount for your overall endurance.


I hate treadmills and I believe that no true runner should use a treadmill without a very very good reason. However, when doing some sessions a couple of years ago with a particularly vicious former Royal Marine personal trainer (vicious in a good way, and really awesome – I owe Ed a lot) he made me do this treadmill workout a few times and not long after I went and ran the best marathon I’ve ever done, shaving 15 minutes off my PB. Post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that, but I still reckon this is a great workout. It’s similar to the one above, but even more rapid and intense. After some thought I’ve reluctantly decided to give you a slightly adapted version of it as the way I did it, while probably better, had some potential for injury if you mucked it up. Suffice it to say that if you can find a method for taking your 40 second rests that doesn’t involve fully stopping the treadmill and getting off, then you may feel that would make the workout more effective, but that is entirely on you.

So, first of all, you need to work out a speed that is a proper balls-out sprint for you, the kind of speed where you think you’re just one misstep away from flying off the back of the treadmill in a heap. Work out that speed, and keep it in mind.

Now, jump on a treadmill and put the incline up to pretty much as high as it will go (if it goes up to near-vertical then be sensible, of course, but you definitely want this steep). Then, gradually ramp it up to a speed that is just slightly slower than your balls-out sprint. At this gradient, it should still feel like just about as fast as you can realistically go, but obviously needs to be safe and manageable. Once you hit the speed, hold it for 20 seconds and then carefully stop the treadmill and take a complete break for 40 seconds.

Do this ten to twelve times, then on the final break, set the speed down to something more like your race pace and put the gradient back to zero. Jump back on and just run with the treadmill as it slows down to a jog, and the gradient goes back to flat. It will actually feel as if you are running downhill so enjoy it, lengthen your stride, and enjoy how easy that pace now feels. Do that a couple of times a week when you are in the gym anyway, or if you can’t run outside, and see if it makes as much difference for you as it did for me.

Please note that I accept no responsibility for any injury sustained when doing any workout mentioned in this post. I'm not a qualified personal trainer, and am simply sharing some techniques that I have used. I do not specifically recommend them for anyone else. Hill running has the potential to put additional strain on the body and you are advised to run within your own capability and seek the advice of a doctor before undertaking any significantly new workout programme.

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