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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