Are Hill Sprints a Secret Weapon for Injury Prevention and Speed?

How many of us sprint on a regular basis? My guess: only a tiny minority of runners ever sprint.

Hill Sprints Steep Grade

It’s important to understand the definition of the word sprint: it’s to run as fast as you can. It’s a maximum effort, at maximum intensity, with 100% power. It’s as fast as you can possibly go.

But most of us never run at an all-out effort. If we run strides, those are about 95-98% effort but aren’t truly a sprint.

Back in college, I sprinted all the time: at the end of races and during many workouts. Sometimes I even raced a 400m relay (!) requiring this distance runner to sprint way outside of his comfort zone.

Now, sprinting is a rarity. And to be truthful, I feel less powerful as a runner because I rarely engage my leg muscles this way.

But there’s one workout I’ve done regularly in the last few years that increases power, engages more muscle fibers, strengthens muscles and connective tissues, and prevents injuries.

That workout is hill sprints. 

These are short, maximum-intensity sprints up a steep hill of about 5-7% grade. At only 8-10 seconds, they’re really short. But at max effort, they’re also really fast and require you to take a full recovery after each sprint.

After a few weeks, hill sprints have the potential to transform your running so you’re faster and less likely to get hurt. Excited? Let’s see how they can help (and what mistakes to avoid).

Why Are Hill Sprints So Helpful for Runners?

Hill sprints have a variety of significant benefits. They:

  • strengthen your running muscles and connective tissues
  • increase your stride power
  • make you less likely to suffer a serious running injury
  • improve your running economy (or efficiency)

You might recognize this list of benefits as the same you’d get from lifting heavy weights. And you’d be right!

Hill sprints are just like heavy weight lifting except they’re sport-specific. In other words, you’re strengthening all the muscles of your legs by running. There are no other types of running workouts that are more similar to weight-lifting than hill sprints.

Because you’re running uphill against gravity as fast as possible, you’re recruiting a large number of muscle fibers which can then be relied upon during future workouts or races. Hill sprints increase the pool of muscle fibers available to you so you can access more of them when you’re tired late in a race.

This type of sprinting also increases muscle stiffness (or tension), helping you run faster and feel more “springy” the next day. This is why I often schedule hill sprints the day before a faster workout.

Even though hill sprints are enormously beneficial, they can predispose you to injuries like strains if you’re not ready or don’t do them properly.

Avoid These Hill Sprint Mistakes

Since a hill sprints session is closer to a sprinter’s workout than a distance runner’s, many of us make mistakes when we do them. There are five things you have to watch while running hill sprints.

1. Most runners make the mistake of not SPRINTING when they run hill sprints. Remember, they’re as fast as you can go! Maximum effort means 100% intensity at full speed!

Because of this mistake, many runners turn a session of hill sprints into a session of hill repetitions, which is an entirely different workout. Hill reps are run sub-maximally – fast, but not all-out.

2. Keep hill sprints SHORT. The majority of us should stick to 8-10 second sprints, with much more advanced runners progressing to 12-seconds. When I hear a runner tell me they ran a 30-second hill sprint, they really meant a 30-second hill repetition. You simply can’t sprint at your fastest possible speed for 30 seconds.

3. Taking a short recovery is another huge mistake that can result in poor performance (i.e., not being able to run at max speed) and injury. This workout is a sprinter’s workout: the focus is on speed and form, so you must rest completely after each repetition. Slowly walking back down the hill is usually enough, but ensure you get at least 60-90 seconds of walking afterwards.

4. The first rep shouldn’t be at 100% effort. Running flat-out requires you to be VERY warmed up and easy running isn’t enough. That’s why it’s beneficial to run the first hill sprint just slower than your fastest pace. Being at about 98% effort helps you reduce your risk of injury during hill sprints.

5. Run tall and don’t lean! It’s hard to have poor form while sprinting uphill, but some runners “lean” into the hill which is a mistake. Focus on staying vertical and avoid leaning or else you’ll sacrifice power. Pump your arms for momentum and focus on quick, powerful strides (more on proper running form).

Hill sprints introduce a high level of neuromuscular fatigue. The central nervous system (communication pathway between your muscles and brain) will be “tired” after this type of workout so be aware your body is stressed differently than other types of endurance workouts.

Step-by-Step Hill Sprint Workout

Here’s the play-by-play of how a session of hill sprints should be executed:

  1. Finish an easy run at the bottom of a hill with a 5-7% grade (steep but not vertical)
  2. Optional: change into a pair of lightweight running shoes (or racing flats) for more responsive running
  3. Use the countdown feature on your watch to time an 8 or 10-second interval
  4. Accelerate into your first hill sprint gradually and reach about 98% max speed on the first rep
  5. Stop and walk back down the hill slowly, taking 60-90 seconds of recovery
  6. Repeat!

Here’s a video showing you what this looks like (with annotations):

Runners who have never done hill sprints should start with just 2-3 sprints. You can add 1-2 reps every session until you reach 8-10 total – there’s little benefit to doing more than this and more injury risk.

Some runners can do hill sprints twice per week while others just need one session. Remember that they’re very stressful (in a different but equally challenging way than what you’re probably used to) so exercise caution and don’t run them more than twice per week.

Combining hill sprints with body-weight exercises and general strength work can help you get incredibly strong. Building this foundation of structural strength early in the season for you (like early in a marathon build-up) can help you prevent injuries during the entire training cycle.

Enjoy this fun, exhilarating, and super fast workout. It’s one of my favorites and focuses on such an under-utilized aspect of our fitness: raw, blazing speed!

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Comments

  1. I knew I was doing something wrong! Thanks for the info. Will definitely try out your suggested hill sprint workout and modify from there.

    <3 Jamaica

  2. Do you progress to flat sprints after you reached 10x hill sprints?

    • You can! Many coaches do this, particularly for runners training for shorter races. HS have inherent benefits though so you don’t have to progress to something else.

  3. Great article Jason! As a beginner at running, how do I know when I’m ready to start adding hill sprints to my routine?

    • If you’ve been running a few months and have done SOME faster runner, you can probably start hill sprints. Just be aware of your limits; you may want to run them at 99% effort and not go all-out for a few weeks just to get a feel for them. Also, strides are a good introductory way to start running fast without the risks inherent in going 100%.

  4. Mark Duffield says:

    Thanks Jason. I have been doing my hill sprints more like hill repeats, so I appreciate your article as I am prepare for NYC. Question: I usually recover to a particular heart rate. My theoretical max (by the 220 – age method) is just over 170. I usually recover to 140 or below before starting another. At what % of max would you call “recovered”?

    • The recovery should be “full” so heart rate should be lower than 140 – which would probably be an easy/comfortable running effort for you. I’d stick to about 90 seconds of walking down the hill and not even worry about heart rate. This is like a sprinter’s workout, and if you’ve ever watched one of those, they rest for 3-5 minutes sometimes. It’s not about heart rate (which is an endurance factor), it’s more about letting your central nervous system recover so you can sprint at max effort again.

  5. Great post, Jason! I’ve been recommended and blogged on my site about 8-second hill sprints for multisport athletes for some time– and received a bunch of few skeptical glances. They’re great at the end of long runs and even recovery runs. I think, however, that the recovery in the video is a bit on the short side. Steve Magness (The Science of Running, p. 222) recommends a recovery time of at least 2-3 minutes between each effort and somewhere in one of his blogs talks about introducing games with his highly-accomplished young runners to make sure that they don’t hit the next repeat sooner than that. The people I train with want to hit the next repeat too quickly– as a consequence, they reduce the intensity of their next interval, which defeats the purpose of doing the sprints in the first place.

    • As long as you’re still able to maintain 100% effort, 90sec is plenty. But I often go up to 2min – just depends on how you feel!

      • Fair enough– we both agree that FULL recovery is the key. I think you did a great service by talking about this and demonstrating it. Most coaches don’t understand how important hill sprints are for preventing injuries– in fact, I bet most would say to avoid them because they cause injuries (like more than one coach in my past did). I’m going to reblog your post with some added incentives for older multisport athletes (who really, really need hill sprints).

  6. I’ve almost recovered from IT band injury from March, just occasional side knee pain. Can I start hill workouts now?

  7. Not much for hills where I live. Will a parking garage or TM work for this?

    On a seperate note reg hill training (in a LR or repeats) I had a coach say that if you didn’t have hills then speed work could replace it. Not sure I but that but would love to hear what you have to say. For Boston or another hilly race, we’ll drive 45 min to do our LRs on hills. Could doing extra speed work actually replace that?

  8. James Normile says:

    Dear Jason,
    Thank you for sending me the Video and I really did like very much! I will be doing hills sprints in a few months and I really like what I read about it I just want to thank you very much. I will let you know how things go with it.

  9. Jason,

    Thanks for the tips. I enjoy your enthusiasm. Just one daft question – I live on a hilly island in Hong Kong with access to slight rises to almost vertical trails and I was wondering what gradient to run up and how to measure it (just rough)? I couldn’t really tell from the video – any approximate guide?

    I’m 47 and started running last year after a ‘cardiac event’ and haven’t felt better in 30 years. I’ve done a few 10Ks since i started but the marathon is a kind of hazy dream that I would love to achieve, but not sure if I could or if I could deal with the training. You write a lot about getting the mental state right – any tips to get me motivated?

    Thanks and keep on scampering!

  10. Love how you talked about now going full effort on the first rep, for I have seen many people injure themselves running sprints without properly warming up. Great post, lookd forward to reading more!

Trackbacks

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