Understanding Hill Workouts

by Jeff Godin, Ph.D., CSCS, Director of Spartan Coaching


The beauty of obstacle racing is that it exposes your weakest link. Lack upper body strength? You will pay for it on the 12 foot wall. Lack balance? You will pay for it on the balance beam. Lack hill climbing endurance? You will pay for it all-day. Spartan Race is well known for its lung crushing climbs, and quad destroying descents. According to one racer that I overheard last Saturday at the Tri State Super, “the number of climbs is ridiculous”.

The only way to beat the hill is to embrace it. Hill running increases oxygen consumption considerably. For example, an athlete running at an easy 10 min/mile pace has an estimated oxygen consumption of 36 mlO2/kg/min, where running the same speed on a 10% grade (a grade of 100% = 45 degree angle) increases oxygen consumption to 50 mlO2/kg/min. That’s almost a 40% increase in energy expenditure! Running on a flat surface, a runner only needs to produce energy for horizontal work. The extra energy needed to lift the body vertically against gravity accounts for this extra energy expenditure.

Running at an oxygen consumption of 50 mlO2/kg/min will be close to many athletes maximal oxygen consumption and certainly above the lactate threshold for all but the elite runners. This will result in an increase in muscle acidosis and increased rate of glycogen utilization. The end result is fatigue and possible glycogen depletion.

Although training will improve VO2 max and running efficiency, it will not be enough offset the increased metabolic demand of steep uphill running. The best solution is to adjust the pace or speed so the energy expenditure remains the same. For most, that will mean walking uphill at a much slower pace. This will prevent fatigue and spare glycogen and prevent bonking. Pace yourself on the hill climbs.

Walking or running uphill places unique stress on the locomotive muscles when compared to walking or running on flat ground. The change in slope puts the foot into severe dorsi flexion, stressing the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantar fascia. The trunk also leans forward, placing more stress on the hamstrings and back extensors. A couple of small hills won’t negatively impact these muscle groups, but in the longer events where there will be 3,000 – 5,000 ft of climbing, there can be major damage to these muscles, especially in athletes who have not prepared on hills.


11 Responses

  1. avatar

    What about “pushing through the pain”? To burn the lactic acid – then you get to this place where you let your mind take over your body and push through…..

  2. avatar

    I live to run hills..

  3. avatar

    So basically we’re out of luck?! What kind of help is this? “It’s harder to run up hill, so slow your pace?!” What?!

    • avatar

      I agree: that’s not very helpful advice. Training for hills does indeed make you better able to tolerate hills. Training in thinner oxygen makes you feel awesome once you return to the atmospheric level you are used to. Consider this: runners who live in the mountains and then go to the ocean for a race usually make a PR. They are accustomed to training hills and having less oxygen at their disposal. However, the opposite is also true! Those accustomed to training at sea level have a much harder time running in the mountains.

      The human body is highly adaptive. I’ve always training to maintain pace on hills. Diligence in your training is the key to conquering any obstacle, including hills, like a Spartan. Try a mix of training on hills. Some days you can do hill repeats. Others try for endurance on the hills. The result is unavoidable.

      Hope that helps! Have fun!

      • avatar

        Michelle you are so right, I lived for 40 years of my live below sea level, close to the sea and on flat land. Then we moved to way above sea level, no sea anywhere near and O yeah the great mountains and hills. Gosh I was so out of breath to do a 5k run I almost even couldn’t do it, legs cramped more too and then mountain climbing, huft and puft all the way up. I even gave up for a while only walked thinking I was getting to old for running, recovery from sickness and refound fitness brought me back and I think after a year of full training I’m finally can say I got it! My body is used to it and it’s getting easier every step, every breath, now focus on those hills because they sure outdid me the last year, this year I’m going to be prepared and train so they become a living habit as well. Spartan 2014 here I come again Aroo!

  4. avatar

    Same question but maybe a little nicer… I started including 100-150 sprints up a 50% or so trail in my work out. Very demanding but I’m not in good shape yet. I can do two, plus a walk to where this trail is located. Increasing the number of times I can do this is my measuring stick. It will build large muscles, help stretch muscles/tendons, and absolutely increase cardio capacity (my biggest problem) at this point.

  5. avatar

    Sorry, correction. 100-150 YARD sprints…

  6. avatar

    Well wrote. I almost always click on an article that is expressing hill workouts. I don’t dislike hills but just like everyone, I will look for a more efficient(easier) way to train for hills. The science part of your post is interesting to read. When it comes to hills, you gotta learn to love them.

  7. avatar

    Does it make sense to train for hills by running up stairs? I’m guessing it’s hitting the right muscle groups, mostly, just missing the unevenness of a proper hill. It’s how I’ve been training.
    Does this make sense? Anybody else tried it?

  8. avatar

    I was really excited to read this article, thought it might actually be useful. I, like some of the others here, expected advice on hill training. Can you guys maybe find some advice on how to make hill training work for you? Or trips on how to hill train? The use of uphill vs. downhill traingin? How downhill works as plyometric training and can actually increase performance on uphill? So, something other than slow down to run up – that just happens naturally with the increase of energy expenditure, anyone who’s ever tried to run up a hill knows that. Good job, but try again.

  9. avatar

    Just like any distance training, your weekly workouts must total more than your race distance. There is no better (easier) traning for hills, than to run hills! You have to push to your VO2 limits and know what you can do in a race. You don’t have to run hills everyday, but once a week, combined with your regular HR/speed/pace runs will prove to be a HILL dominating combo! Train for LIFE!

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