Becoming an Aerobic Powerhouse: Tempo + Hills Combination Workout

by Jason Fitzgerald

Combining a tempo with hill repeats is an effective, time-efficient workout that can help you get closer to race-ready shape while boosting your endurance and muscle power. This session is strength oriented with a focus on developing your aerobic capacity; if you can finish this workout feeling strong then you’re ready to run fast.

Tempo Road

I’ve done this workout late in the base phase of training as I’m preparing for more race-specific workouts. It helps build your aerobic capacity, develops strength in your legs, and gives you an anaerobic stimulus like you’ll get on the track with less impact on your legs.

After about 13 years of competitive training, it’s still one of my favorite workouts.

Don’t attempt a tempo and hills combination workout unless you’ve done both a longer tempo and a set of at least 6-8 hill intervals. Being prepared for this type of workout is critical.

Tempo Runs 101

Determining your tempo pace is fairly straight forward. If you have a heart rate monitor, run at about 85-90% of your maximum heart rate [see my post on how to use a heart rate monitor for more info]. I’ve found this tool to be the most helpful in determining your max HR. You could also perform a simple test on the track.

Tempo pace is also often described as “comfortably hard” or the pace that you could hold for a full hour. Both are accurate.

For myself, I’ve found all of these descriptions work well for me. I typically run my tempo workouts at about 5:30-5:35 mile pace, which puts my heart rate in the low 170’s. Based on most calculators I can find, this is about 87-90% of my maximum.

My 10 mile PR is 54:50 (5:29 pace) and my half-marathon best is 1:13:39 (5:38 pace) so the “pace you can run for an hour” rule works out as well. No matter how you calculate your tempo effort, know that each is a fairly accurate predictor of the pace you should be running.

Tempo runs are best run on a track, flat road (no camber!), or a smooth dirt trail. Since this workout is very controlled, you want to avoid hills (which will spike your heart rate) or technical trails which may slow you down or make you trip.

If you typically do a 20-30 minute tempo run in training, you should cut this in half when doing a combination workout. Leaving gas in the tank for the hills will help you finish this workout strong.

The benefits of tempo runs are well known by most runners. By running hard, but not too hard, you teach your body to run efficiently. You push your lactate threshold higher, which is the fastest pace you can run aerobically (with oxygen) without accumulating excess lactate in your blood. It’s one of the most beneficial workouts for distance runners.

Hill Workouts 101

Oh hills, how I love you. During high school and college cross country we ran hill intervals almost every week. And we were damn good at them during races.

Running uphill is like weight lifting for your legs in a running-specific way. You build a lot of leg strength, especially if you’re going faster than your normal pace (like in a workout), by recruiting more muscle fibers and working against gravity. Since running hills is dynamic, you’re forced to exert a lot of force while moving. It’s much more effective at making you a faster runner.

It’s pretty hard to have sloppy form as you’re running hard uphill. Chris McDougall mentions this in Born to Run and is one of the reasons he hit the hills so frequently during his training for a 50 mile ultramarathon. Your efficiency, or your stride mechanics, will improve with frequent hill training.

The grade and length of the hill will depend on your fitness and how much volume of hard running you can handle. I usually do 90 second hill intervals but in a combination workout I shorten them to 60 seconds. If you’re used to doing a minute, try doing 30 or 45 second hill intervals.

The grade of the hill should be about 5-8% (steeper for shorter, more intense workouts). Most runners use what’s available to them so find a hill that you’re comfortable running. If it’s on the road then it should preferably have little traffic. And safety first: wear your Road ID!

Your recovery between hill repetitions should be a slow jog back down the hill. Careful not to pound your legs as you descend. If you’re still wildly out of breath once you reach the bottom then continue to jog for another 20-30 seconds until your breathing is in control.

Structuring the Tempo and Hills Workout

Let’s combine these two workouts! The first thing you want to do is a 15-25 minute warm-up and then 4-8 strides, depending on your fitness level and the volume you’d like to hit for the day.

Now it’s time to start your tempo – keep it even and run in control for 10-20 minutes. Again, the length of your tempo depends on your fitness level and your goals. When in doubt, run a few minutes less.

After your tempo, take 2-5 minutes of slow to moderate jogging recovery before you start the hills. Many coaches recommend short recoveries after tempo-paced intervals (commonly referred to as threshold intervals), but when prepping for hill reps it’s a good idea to rest more.

The idea behind shorter recoveries during threshold/tempo workouts is that you don’t need to recover from much and you’re prepping for yet another tempo effort. But in a tempo and hills combination workout, you’re gearing up to run much faster and uphill!

The pace of your hills should be run at about 5k-10k race effort. I want to emphasize that effort is important. While you may feel like you’re going 5k pace, it could be slower because of the uphill. Don’t worry about it.

Once you complete 3-6 hills, it’s time for your warm-down of 15-20 minutes. Some coaches let you get away with 10 minutes of easy running but I don’t think that’s enough time. You need to give your body some easy movement to flush out your legs and get your blood PH closer to normal.

This combination workout is highlighted in the 52 Workouts, 52 Weeks, One Faster Runner guide (free) that I released last December. Check it out if you’d like other workout ideas.

If you found this post helpful, please like or tweet it so other runners can find it. I won’t mind :)

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