Runners do hill repeats.

When it comes to hill workouts, variety is key

Hill repeats are a staple of many runners’ training plans and are a great opportunity to work on strength and endurance. But not all hill repeats are made equal and it’s easy for runners to hit a plateau in their training.

This week, Saskatoon physiotherapist Kim Fraser speaks with the Brainsport Times about how to get the most out of your hill workouts and why simply running more and more laps of the McPherson Avenue hill may not result in the fitness gains you’d expect.

Variety is key

When Fraser gives her athletes a training plan, she helps them identify hills of various distances and inclines where they can focus on different things. Athletes might be challenged to do quick reps up short, steep hills and recovery paces on longer, more gradual ones.

“By adding that variability in distance and pace with their hills, I see bigger performance gains than if they’re doing repetitive hills like going up and down McPherson,” Fraser says.

Unless athletes are training for a trail race with lots of elevation, Fraser typically doesn’t prescribe hill workouts every week; she’ll often recommend athletes alternate between speed and hill workouts.

Have fun with it

“Hill training is an art and you can be creative with it,” Fraser says. That means using hills for work other than running.

“We perceive running to be a very linear sport, but it’s actually the lateral muscles of the hip that really provide strength and power to running,” Fraser explains. Doing karaoke/crossover drills or lateral steps up or down hills can activate those lateral muscles and provide gains if done between hill intervals. Walking backwards up hills also recruits different muscle groups.

“When it comes to hill training, change your paces with it, add variety, add those creative lateral movements, and just have fun with it,” Fraser says. “People get more out of it when they change it up.”

Focus on technique

When going uphill, runners should focus on high cadence, short strides and keeping their hips and pelvis nice and high, Fraser suggests.

When going downhill, runners should try to relax. “If we don’t relax, we are putting quite a bit of ground reaction forces into our legs. That might create too much stress on the knees and people might find they are quite sore when they go down stairs the following day,” Fraser says.

Listen to your body

Runners who overtrain on hills may experience shin pain or bilateral knee pain. Ankle injuries are also possible if there is reduced range of motion in one or both ankles, which can trigger crossbody injuries (for instance, if your left ankle isn’t dorsiflexing sufficiently, the right hip has to work harder and may become injured) or your left shoulder may start to get sore.

“So pay attention if you’re seeing multiple things start to show up,” Fraser says. “That might tell you that you have a range of motion problem or you’re starting to fatigue from the volume of training.”

Fraser also encourages runners to stop and catch their breath or take longer walk breaks if they need. “I really want people to listen to their bodies because they will see more performance gains when they do,” she says.