Anytime I travel to a place I’ve never been, I’m always on the lookout for awesome “hill sprint hills”. Call me weird, but ever since I was a kid training for football, hill sprints have been one of my favorite workout modalities.
No matter your fitness goals, including some hill training into your routine can have you smashing through training plateaus and getting leaner and more aesthetic than ever before. Aside from improving your physique, they’ll improve your strength, speed, endurance and durability depending on how you implement them.
Sprints, in general, are a phenomenal exercise. However, the problem with sprinting on a flat surface is the increased risk of injury. Unless you’re an advanced athlete who’s been sprinting regularly for a long time, doing sprints on flat surfaces may not be the best idea.
Fortunately, hill sprints give you all the benefits of regular sprints but with significantly less potential for injury. Hill sprints (or repeats) are safe for most people, great for building and preserving leg muscle and strength, and excellent for burning fat.
Some of the greatest athletes of all time have utilized hill sprints regularly in their training regimens. Two that come to mind are Jerry Rice and Walter Payton (if you don’t know who these men are, go read about them before reading the rest of this post).
Even if you do not have extreme athletic goals, hill sprints are highly beneficial. In this blog post, I’m going to break down all the benefits of hill sprints, how to perform them, and how you can tailor them to your own personal goals.
Benefits of Hill Sprints
Arguably the most important characteristic of hill sprints is that they’re relatively safe. Just like sled work, while it’s certainly possible to injure yourself doing them, it’s far less likely than if you were sprinting on a flat surface.
Why? The fact that you’re running up an incline makes your hamstring extension on each stride shorter than it would be on a flat surface. Hamstring tears are the most common sprinting injury, and because each step on the hill is not lengthening the hamstring fully, they’re far less likely to tear.
Another common point of injury is the deceleration portion of the sprint. The hill reduces the occurrence of deceleration injuries because when you’re running uphill, especially if it’s steep, your top speed will not be anywhere near your flat ground speed. So the hill essentially decelerates for you.
Yes, there are certainly ways to injure yourself doing hill sprints, but if you continue reading, you’ll find out how to program them in order to minimize risk and maximize ROI.
Effective for Many Goals
Hill sprints are extremely versatile, and can be manipulated to bring you closer to nearly any fitness goal. If your goal is to get faster, do hill sprints. If your goal is to get stronger legs, do hill sprints.
If your goal is to get leaner, do hill sprints. If you want to build endurance, do hill sprints on a longer, less steep hill. For general population trainees, or those who want to improve their sprinting speed and power (like football players) shorter steeper hills are great.
For endurance focused individuals, performing longer sprints (known as repeats) on a less steep incline can be a game changer. Hill sprints and sprinting in general are great forms of high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a highly effective fat burning technique so implementing it into your routine can help you get leaner especially if you’re tight on time.
Quick and Easy
Unless you’re an endurance-focused athlete doing longer high volume hill repeats, hill sprints are a great way to quickly complete an effective workout. Going out to do 6-12 hill sprints should take no longer than 30 minutes (including a warmup and cooldown).
They can also be done almost anywhere. I understand that some places in the country are more flat than others and you may not have a hill near where you live. But if you have gym access you can do hill sprints on a treadmill. To this day, I have yet to hear a valid excuse (aside from being injured or disabled) for not doing hill sprints.
How to do hill sprints
There are many ways to fit hill sprints into your program. They can be done on leg day to finish your workout, or separately as a stand-alone workout. One of my favorite ways to utilize hill sprints is to do them when I don’t have easy gym access for a leg workout.
Hill sprints are even a great replacement for leg day (not every leg day, but occasionally). The only times I recommend not doing them is the day before or the day after a heavy or high volume leg workout.
To avoid overuse injuries or overtraining, doing hill sprints either as part of your leg workout or at 36-48 hours away (pre or post) from your leg days is advised. Hill sprints are very neurologically and muscularly demanding, so ensure you’re recovering from them just as you would any other workout.
Depending on your fitness ability and your workout routine, hill sprints can be done 1-4 times per week. If you do no other leg training (not recommended long-term), you can certainly work your way up to 4 times per week.
More realistically, 1-2 times per week or even every other week would be a great option. I like to do them once a week as part of my leg workout, and sometimes one other time per week as a stand-alone HIIT workout. As long as you follow the advice from the above paragraph, your frequency should be perfect.
How many sprints should I do? How long and steep should the hill be? Generally speaking, for most people looking to reap the greatest benefit from hill sprints, they should find an incline of about 20-40 degrees and a length of 20-50 meters. There’s no such thing as the “perfect hill”, so find something that works for you and is relatively convenient.
When first starting out, don’t go overboard. You may start with as little as 2-3 hill sprints for your first session. Or you can do a few “warmup sprints” at 70-80% intensity and then do a couple reps at nearly max intensity. I never recommend going 100% all out for hill sprints (or almost any exercise) because of the increased risk of injury and the increased recovery requirements that entails.
Once you’re comfortable with them and have been doing them consistently, 8-12 repeats is likely the optimal amount, again depending on your current ability and goals. If you’re really fit and have been doing hill sprints for a long time, there's nothing wrong with doing more than 12.
If you have endurance based goals, an incline of 10-20 degrees and a distance of 200-800 meters is ideal for hill repeats. The distance of your race will dictate the length of the hill and the amount of repeats you’ll perform. Generally, you’ll do more repeats at a faster pace on a shorter hill, and vice versa. Again, everyone is different, and everyone has different goals. Plan your hill sprints accordingly.
How Program and Execute Hill Sprints
If you’re doing hill sprints on leg day after your main lower body lifts for the day, the warmup for hill sprints is less important. Usually just doing a couple reps at 70-80% effort before increasing the intensity is perfect.
It’s important to remember, If you’re doing them on leg day, account for the overall increase in volume that hill sprints will have. Doing a 100% all out leg workout immediately followed by hill sprints may not be the best idea. Plan accordingly.
If you’re doing them as a stand-alone workout or doing hill sprints after an upper body day, warming up becomes more important. Generally some dynamic hamstring, quad and glute warmup movements followed by some repeats at 50-80% before starting will suffice.
Once you begin your repeats, unless your goal is endurance, you want to rest adequately in between each one. I cannot stress this point enough. Just like with weight training, your goal is not to burn as many calories as possible with the workout. I recommend about a 5-7:1 rest to work ratio. So if my sprint took 10 seconds, I’ll rest for about a minute.
Substitutions For Hill Sprints
If you’re unable to find a good hill near you, treadmill hill sprints are a great substitution. Some things to consider for treadmill sprints. Don’t start from a deadstop and try to go full speed on the treadmill belt.
Go from a walk to a light jog and slowly increase to your sprint speed. For example, If you’re doing sprints at 12MPH, start at 5, then progress up to 6,7,8 etc until you’re in a full sprint. This will help you avoid injuries and embarrassment.
Use the same technique in the opposite direction to slow down from your sprint instead of just hopping off and grabbing the handles. Another great substitution for hill sprints are short, fast, moderate weight sled pushes. I also recommend not doing sled pushes and hill sprints in the same workout to avoid redundancy.
Too Long, Didn’t Read
Fitting hill sprints into your training doesn’t need to be complicated. If you’ve never done them, doing 1-2 hill sprints in your first workout is honestly going to be plenty. Start slow and don’t go straight to doing 12. As you get more proficient and fitter, increase the distance, intensity, total reps, or hill steepness. Or, you can decrease the rest time in between.
I hope you enjoyed reading and I hope I’ve convinced you to go out and find a hill! What’s your favorite hill sprint workout?! Leave a comment below!