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High-Intensity Interval Training

The Hill Workout for Peak Conditioning

There's no getting around it: Hill training is rough. But if you do it correctly, it's worth it.

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The appeal of outdoor workouts usually comes hand in hand with the appeal of getting on a track or field for some running and sprinting work. When that’s the case, it’s easy for a lifter to not be too sure just where to start.

The truth is, running-based drills and exercises aren’t something you just “get.” They’re just like weight-training exercises: There’s a learning process and plenty of technique to regard to ensure safety and proper execution. If they’re not respected, then injuries can loom.

We don’t expect everyone to be adept at running drills, plyometrics and sprinting — and for that reason, the goal is to place everyone in the best position possible for success. And that’s where using hill training comes in quite handy.

Why Use Hills?

The first thing most people usually think about when they hear “hill training” is the fact that it’s undeniably harder. And yes — running up or doing drills on a hill or incline will be more challenging than doing so on a flat surface. That goes without saying. But there’s another major benefit.

The types of training in question here (like plyometrics, running and sprinting) all have something in common: They are very high-impact exercises. They’re not performed in the same place from start to finish. Rather, they’re locomotive, which means there’s far less control and a bit more room for one “rep” to be a bit different from the last based on the athletic nature of the exercises. For that reason, people have to be prepared for the load-bearing joints like the hips, knees and ankles to deal with a little bit more pounding than a typical set of lunges or squats may deliver. This can be amplified if the lifter doing the exercises has a history of joint issues or prior injuries. It certainly is recommended to soften the blow by adding hills to the mix. 

Doing so reduces the amount of impact the joints receive on each landing, and also can act as a way to build efficiency and fix form and technique a bit more easily. Since the body is moving on an incline, it’s going to rely much more on proper adherence to principles of physics to efficiently move from point A to point B. All in all, hill training makes for a hell of a workout with many benefits to the body.

How Steep?

It’s important you’re choosy with the grade of the hill. A very mild incline of 5 or 10 percent may hardly present a difference to training on flat ground, but a steep 45-degree incline will be far too aggressive to be able to get much done. Finding a sweet spot of about 20 to 30 degrees is optimal. 

The Best Choices for Hill Training

Static and Dynamic Two-Legged Bound

This exercise is a great way to focus on applying one direct channel of force, using your entire posterior chain, and understanding coordination. Many times, lifters fall into the trap of cutting off their explosiveness by driving their arms downward (and throwing their hands back) as the jump is happening. Instead, the idea should be to have your arms help the force being produced by driving them upward — the same way someone would if she was looking to go up for a rebound in basketball or a block or spike in volleyball.

Taking things a step further and freezing between each jump will allow your arms to set themselves up behind your body in preparation for the strong drive that accompanies a full triple extension. Focusing on three to four sets of six to 10 bounds is optimal.

Backward Hill Walk

The good news about this exercise: It can be duplicated on an incline treadmill without a problem. The treadmill also provides the opportunity to perform this movement as more of a cardio finisher or long-winded effort rather than a set of reps (since the belt never stops). To do it, set the incline to about 12.0, and set the speed to something comfortable to backpedal on — usually the area of 2.0 works well in this department.

When performing a backward treadmill incline walk, the idea is to mimic an actual hill walk (if you’ve opted to use a treadmill and not a hill, of course) and avoid holding on to the side rails. Press through the balls of your feet, take long strides and push off completely on each one. A couple of minutes of this and your quads should feel like they’re ready to explode. If you’re using a hill, then go by distance. Ten sets of 40 to 50 meters with no rest — other than walking back down the hill to repeat — would be a good directive.

Hill Sprints

Full-fledged sprinting uphill can act to clean up plenty of technical flaws that are typically seen when sprinting on flat ground. With that said, there are still a few things to focus on to make the process possible. Remember to follow these cues when sprinting: 

Knees down the track. That means making sure your knees are pointing forward — not bowing out or falling in when running. This can enforce proper alignment among the ankle, knee and hip joints and can add to the production of force and generation of speed. 

Toes up. This seems counterintuitive, but the real way to sprint fast is to make sure that when your foot’s off the ground, your toes are up and your foot is dorsiflexed. This will make it easier to strike the ground with minimal friction to get in the way of fast sprinting. As soon as your foot comes around for the next stride, your toes need to be poised for the correct foot strike. It’s a small change but a very important one.

Fast, efficient sprinting implies that your body should be moving like a wheel rolling smoothly along — and there should be nothing to slow your body down. Dropping your toes will cause your foot to “chip” into the ground and kill your momentum, frustrating your ability to fully achieve this.

Full arm swing. Think “cheek to cheek” to reference where your hands belong. Your arms should swing so your hands get to your face cheek on the front side and your butt cheek on the back side. Really aiming to make your shoulder joint the main pivot point is key, since most of your power development from your upper body will hinge on that region. Keep your core braced to avoid rotation through your trunk. 

Last but Not Least, Leave Something in the Tank! 

Remember, sprinting at 80 or 90 percent of your absolute best effort is still sprinting. There isn’t a more vigorous and explosive movement in the world than sprinting, and it only takes one stride to blow out a hamstring — especially if it’s been a while. There’s no need to try to be a hero and use a race pace for each run you do. Leave something in the tank, and know you’ve got access to one more “gear” in reserve. It’ll mean sustainability through your workout and through your entire training season.

There’s More, but Let This Start You Off.

Keep in mind that to get into the real technicalities of power training, hill training, sprinting and things like it, we’d need a 50,000-word article and not a 1,300-word article. Treat this as a guideline for the basics to stay safe and get a good introduction to the movements in question.

The added benefit: This kind of work is sure to burn fat like a furnace and give you a killer set of quads with a ton of posterior-chain activity. If you don’t believe it, wait to see how you feel after day one!