top of page

The Dirt : Hill Training


Whether you’re just starting out, or a seasoned trail trotter, building strength and improving speed arecrucial to all trail runners. As a hardcore, dirt-diggingrunner, Altra Elite Athlete Jeff Browninghas detailed a how-to guide on hill work to help athletes take on the trails.

Ready to dig up some dirt, kick up some dust, and sift through the soil? Let’s get started!

I discovered trail running after moving to Oregon from Colorado in the late 1990s. Prior to that, I spent my free time climbing, backpacking, and mountain biking. I took my dog Frances on casual 30 to 60-minute jaunts a few days a week just to keep her from eating the furniture. But trail running was a natural progression of combining those three disciplines: single-track, summiting cool stuff, and going farther into the backcountry without having to worry about a lot of gear.

When I started running trails, I began gravitating towards harder and longer mountain races. In 2002, I fell in love with the 100-mile distance. After securing my first 100-mile finish at Western States, I started to explore ways to improve my times by thinking about how many vertical feet I climbed per workout per week.

Mountain speedster Max King once told me, “Hill work is speed work in disguise.” I couldn’t agree more. Mixing hill work into your training can be a great way to build strength and work on speed. When balanced with traditional interval speed work on flatter terrain, hill work can be a great way to improve running economy and become a well-rounded mountain runner. Here are a few of my favorite hill workouts...

Note to the flat-landers: Live in a locale where you don’t have hills or mountains? No sweat! Any of these workouts can be adapted to a treadmill. Uphills should vary from 5 percent to 15 percent grade, and recovery set to flat-grade instead of downhill running.

Warm-up All workouts should be performed after an easy 15 to 20-minute aerobic warm-up run and light, active stretching.

Hill Repeats This is the simple approach to improving your hill running strength. Start with 12 x 1-minute interval up at moderately hard pace, followed by an equal (or greater) recovery jog down. Add time to the intervals systematically. For example, the next week do 10 x 2 minutes, then 8 x 3 minutes, etc. Focus on form: Chest over your knees, knees over your toes, tight compact arm swing, and quick cadence. When performing quality intervals, your first interval should be conservative and preferably your slowest. The last one should be your strongest.

Hill Surges This is a good introduction workout. Treat it more like a fartlek workout (Swedish for “Speedplay”). Do 30, 60, and 90-second surges in pace on hilly or rolling terrain.

Tips and variations: If you don’t want to be gawking at your watch constantly, just countexhales for seconds: 30 exhales, 60 exhales, etc. You can also use obstacles in your line of sight as spots to run to when you pick up the pace and surge.

Hill Yo-Yos This is one of my favorites. Find a relatively long climb and run 2 minutes up at a moderately hard pace, followed by a 1-minute recovery jog down. Slowly yo-yo up the climb. Start by performing six and work up to 12 yo-yos.

7/11 Transitions This lower-intensity workout improves your transitions on long climbs and saves your legs during mountain adventures/races. The 7/11 transition improves the efficiency of the transition from running to power hiking, and from power hiking back to running. Count your exhales and power hike for seven exhales, then run for 11 exhales.

Tips and variations: Read the terrain. If the trail immediately in front of you kicks up higher than your head, power hike. If it’s lower than your head, run. Correlate the power hiking vs. running by reading the terrain directly in front of you.

Downhill Intervals If you’re working to build your uphill power, you don’t want to neglect your downhill skills. A little goes a long way. Downhill intervals should be performed occasionally (every 10 to 20 days in a training cycle). It will season the quads for turnover and prepare them for the rigors of long downhill pounding. Find a downhill that’s runnable with few or no obstacles. I use a gravel/dirt mountain fire road or improved pathway. Don’t over stride by focusing on keeping your chest over your knees, knees over toes. Quick cadence and compact, quick arm swing. Avoid leaning back, as you’ll put the brakes on and fry your quads. Lean forward slightly and use gravity. Keep your effort moderately hard. Perform 1 to 3-minute intervals with equal recovery at an easy pace. Again, start conservatively with 6 to 10 minutes of intervals and progress to 20+ minutes total. You’ll most likely experience DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)for 24 to 72 hours post-workout. Recovery Tip: Roll and stretch your legs after the workout. Soaking your legs for 20 to 30 minutes in an Epsomsalt bath can aid recovery. If you’re looking to improve your uphill and downhill running skills, mix these workouts into your training routine. You’ll soon be powering through mountains like a pro. Giddyup! About the Author Jeff Browning is a veteran ultrarunner and ultra-endurance coach. As a masters athlete, he has embraced both mobility and strength consistently in his training to slow down aging and to prepare his body for the rigors of up to five 100-milers per season—some just weeks apart. You can learn more about him, his adventures, and his coaching at or on Instagram: @GoBroncoBilly.

127 views0 comments


bottom of page