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Sprint to the Top

Written by Chris Lundstrom
Posted Jul 31, 2008

They come in all lengths and gradients, and they could be the key to your running success. You love them one minute and hate them the next. I am talking, of course, about hills. And more specifically, hill workouts. “Doing hills” can mean a thousand things to a thousand different people. Indeed, hill workouts come in as many shapes and sizes as hills themselves. You can build aerobic strength by doing hilly long runs, improve your VO2 Max with moderately hard repeats of a minute or longer, or learn the limits of your body by doing fartlek runs on a hilly course.


But this month, we’re talking about speed. 

We’d all like to be fast. Or at least faster. We’d love to possess the ability to accelerate down the final straightaway, sprinting by rivals with effortless, beautiful running form. But when most of us attempt to change gears, we feel more like a rusty hinge than a well-oiled machine.

Enter hill sprints. The following workout is designed to build power, strength, and improve running form. All of this translates into not only faster sprinting down the home stretch, but also greater efficiency at all paces, which means faster race times.

Many of the greatest runners from all over the world improve their speed through some variation of this workout. Not convinced? Perhaps it may help to mention another benefit: Unlike many of the sessions done by the world’s top runners, this one is not too terribly grueling. In other words, a small investment of time and energy can lead to a great payoff.

Hill sprints consist of short, fast sprints up a sharp gradient. The high intensity effort stimulates the brain to recruit muscle fibers that may remain dormant during other types of training. In addition, the resistance of the hill forces runners to adapt their technique to attain greater knee lift and arm action, both of which are essential to faster running.

To do this workout properly, you will need to find yourself a steep hill. It can be quite short, as you will only be sprinting up it for 10-12 seconds at a time. If the hill is longer than that, no problem. Just choose a finishing point somewhere around that 10-12 second point.

Before beginning, warm up thoroughly in order to minimize injury risk. Do the first repeat at 80 percent effort, the second at 90 percent, and the third at 95 percent. Do the rest as fast as possible—near 100 percent intensity—while still maintaining good running form. It may feel awkward to run so fast at first, but over time, your best running form will emerge, and you will start to resemble that well-oiled machine you always dreamed of being.

The idea of running as fast as possible can be intimidating, but remember that each repeat lasts only 10-12 seconds. Just about the time you start to feel fatigued, you will stop and take a nice break. Because the repeats are so short, your body will be able to use stored energy in your muscles (the ATP-CP system), rather than relying upon the lactate system, which leads to the accumulation of all sorts of nasty, fatigue-causing by-products in your muscles and bloodstream.

During each sprint, focus on driving your arms and lifting your knees powerfully with each stride. Between repetitions, walk down the hill to your starting point. Take a minute or more of rest between repeats, making sure that you have caught your breath and are feeling good before you go again. Taking adequate rest is essential to maintaining the very high intensity of the sprints.

I recommend starting with about 5 repeats in your first session, and building up to 15 or 20 per session over a period of weeks. This workout should be done about once a week, with excellent results coming after just a few sessions. You may be just a few hill sprints away from a speedier you.

Chris Lundstrom, M.Ed., is a two-time Olympic trials marathon qualifier and a Team USA Minnesota athlete. He teaches in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota and coaches cross-country, Nordic skiing, and track and field at St. Paul Como High School.

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