The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Walter Payton, nicknamed Sweetness, was one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game of football. During his off-season conditioning he used to run up a hill simply dubbed “The Hill.” The Hill was about 50 to 60 yards with a very steep incline described by Walter as “a goal setter or a will maker”. During his 13-year National Football League (NFL) career, he was a two time MVP and a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team. By the time he retired, he was the all time rushing record holder with 16,726 yards including the single game rushing record of 275 yards.

Hill running should be in the repertoire of all athletes who want to build strength, speed, and endurance. Not only do hills improve your running economy, they are an excellent form of resistance training, which can strengthen your hips and legs.

A recent study from Auckland University of Technology found that after 6 weeks of hill training, runners improved their 5km times by about 2%. For an individual who runs an eighteen-minute 5km, they can improve their time by about 21 seconds simply by adding hills to their training once or twice a week.

When attacking a hill, make sure you have high knee lift, shorten your stride and always look up, not down, at your legs.

When deciding to do hill training, you should consider the type of hill you are running and what the purpose of each hill is. 

  • Short sprint hills take about 15 to 30 seconds. The idea in running short hills is to power your way to the top, making sure you have proper technique and working on your speed. Short sprint hills work more on the anaerobic system.
  • Medium hills take between 30 and 90 seconds to run and work both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. The purpose of a medium hill is to train your body to tolerate lactic acid build up while maintaining both form and pace.
  • Long hills usually take you about 90 seconds or longer and mostly benefit the aerobic system. The purpose of these hills is to build stamina, improve running economy and develop mental toughness.

Running over rolling, hilly terrain is a great way to encompass all three forms of hills mentioned above. Rolling hills are a perfect way to introduce your body to running hills. Using hilly ground mimics road racing or cross country racing.

The 1968 Mexico Olympics 1500 meters gold medalist Kip Keino described hill workouts as “very important before we started doing track workouts.” Hill training improves your running economy, incorporates resistance training and for most it builds mental toughness. Any athlete who aspires to be great should consider hill training as part of their regular training or off-season conditioning, as even the greatest athletes understand hill training builds speed, strength and endurance.

References from the SIRC Collection: 

1. Just for the hill of it. Running & Fitnews. November 2002;20(9):3. 
2. Kauppinen T. Why Every Football Player Should Be Put on Hill Sprints. Coach & Athletic Director. September 2007;77(2):40-41. 
3. Laurendet P. Hill Training. Modern Athlete & Coach. October 2010;48(4):31-32. 
4. Lieberman B. HILL WORK AN EQUINE BODYBUILDING SECRET. Equus. July 2009;(382):42-47. 
5. Mueller G. ASK THE COACH: BIKE TRAINING. Triathlon Life. Spring2012 2012;15(2):28-29. 
6. Running Hills, Options and Benefits Abound. Running & Fitnews. May 2009;27(3):5-6.
7. Russ M. HIT THE HILLS FOR A TRAINING BOOST. Triathlon Life. Spring2011 2011;14(2):34-35.