Hill Sprints – by Gavin Smith

Gavin Smith –  elite running coach who served his apprenticeship under the famous Renato Canova, and has coached elite athletes all over the world including Kenyans Abel Kirui (Olympic Marathon Silver Medalist 2012) and Florence Kiplagat (Berlin Marathon Champion 2011, 2013), talks about hill training and how it should be a staple in everyone’s training schedule.

Hill Sprints

Hill Workouts are a staple of many runners training regimes and my athletes are no different We use various types of workouts at different times in the training cycle dependent on the athlete in question and their current fitness and goals. Most of our hill workouts tend to be used in the fundamental phases rather than nearer to peak races.

However, there is one type of workout which is kept in the program at all times for all athletes and these are Hill Sprints.

 

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What are Hill Sprints and why should you be using them? 

What:

Hill Sprints are exactly what the name suggests; maximal effort runs up an incline.

When:

We use Hill Sprints on non workout days, often the day prior to a hard workout after completing our main running session of the day.  In our program Hill Sprints do not constitute a hard workout in their own right, they are more of an ‘add on’ and can be considered as part of a strength and conditioning program as much as part of the running program.

Once you make the initial adaptation to the increased muscular effort (and delayed fatigue) you will not find Hill Sprints to be something that leaves you feeling tired the following day (and it can even leave you feeling invigorated – see point below RE fibre recruitment)

Why: 

We have numerous reasons for practicing Hill Sprints with distance runners and these include:

– A safe way to practice maximal speed sprinting – The incline of the hill means that less impact is absorbed by the runner.

– Strengthening of key muscles and tendons. I think of Hill Sprints as a weights session where the resistance is the incline of the hill and the technique of the lift is your running action – so Hill Sprints are a very running specific form of weight/resistance training. This is an advantage in terms of injury prevention as well as performance enhancement.

– Recruitment of fibres. As distance runners during the vast majority of our training we only rely on (and train) a certain percentage of the fibres within our muscles leaving a portion of our fibres dormant and useless. These fibres are only called into action during high intensity bouts of exercise (such as a sprint finish, or just the final few minutes of a competition when the highly trained fibres we use at sub maximal intensities have become exhausted) so unless we have used these fibres in training we will not be able to call them into action during competition. It is no co-incidence that those athletes who are able to sprint at the end of the distance race are those who have practiced sprinting in training.

– Increased Stroke Volume. Maximal effort hill sprints elicit a very rapid heart rate response and teach the heart to pump more blood per single stroke (therefore reducing heart rate at a given intensity)

There are other benefits to hill sprints such as improving ground contact time (“reactivity of feet” in Renato’s words) and not to be underestimated is the enjoyment factor. As distance runners we have limited opportunities to take on challenges such as maximal sprinting and you will be surprised how enjoyable this change of emphasis can be for an athlete. This is something which cannot be overlooked when considering an athletes motivation and long term development – in order to maintain a high level of training over a long period of time you must find ways to keep the athlete mentally stimulated and enjoying themselves.

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Example: 

8x12second with 2minutes recovery

We tend to use Hill Sprints over approximately 10-12seconds duration with a long recovery period. Each hill should be considered as one individual maximal effort so adequate recovery between each hill is necessary. The idea is not to try and quickly begin the next hill with a fast recovery.  If performed correctly the athlete will be considerably ‘out of breath’ at the end of each hill ran and so our usual protocol is a stationary recovery followed by a slow walk down the hill.

Progressions and Variations

Our Hill Sprints tend not to develop and progress in the same manor as our other workouts as they are more of a maintenance and strength and conditioning session which does stay stable over time in contrast to some of our other types of running.  However, there are some variations and progressions which you may wish to consider.

Gradient:  Generally speaking we look for quite a steep hill but you can play with the gradient depending on what you want to work on. A steeper hill will put more emphasis on muscular strength development and a shallower hill will have more emphasis on speed.

Timing of Workout:  We tend to use Hill Sprints on moderate intensity days after our main running workout. But it is entirely possible to use Hill Sprints in any number of situations and this is limited only by the coaches imagination and observations of what is seen with his/her athletes.

If you have a runner who struggles from a muscular standpoint towards the end of races and workouts then perhaps consider using a short set of Hill Sprints at the end of a long run or workout.

Types of Workout:  There really are no end to the combinations possible and a skilful coach will identify the needs of their particular athlete and can utilise Hill Sprints as necessary for them

An interesting variation I have seen used by high level coach/athlete pairings is to combine Specific Endurance intervals with Hill Sprints within the same workout.  For example for an athlete training for a Half Marathon a workout might include blocks of Half Marathon paced running interspersed with sets of Maximal Hill Sprints:

EG: 3000m @HM, 8×12” HS, 3000m @HM, 8×12” HS, 3000m @HM with 2minute recoveries between the sets.

The idea here, as it has been explained to me, is to use the race specific periods to engage the fibres usually associated with that intensity of running, to then recruit (and activate) a higher percentage of the muscle fibres with the Hill Sprints, and then return to the race specific running in order to train those fibres to work at the desired intensity. Thus increasing the availability of fibres at race speed.

An interesting idea which goes to show that the options available to a coach are limited only by their imagination.

Read more of Gavin’s blog posts; and see Gavin’s We Are Runners coaching profile here.