The Importance of Hill and Interval Training for Track & Field

Some of my favorite practices include those that incorporate hill work and interval training. There are few other activities that really prove a runner's fitness and aerobic/anaerobic capacity than these activities. Now, since hill running and interval training are both intensive, I would highly recommend not doing both activities in the same practice. 

Hill Workouts: Why It's Beneficial

The benefits of hill running can overcome most disadvantages of not having an adequate weight room, or enough equipment or resources for plyometrics. Hill running combines working with power, strong running form, and, depending on how long of a hill you're running, it can improve one's sprinting economy or aerobic capacity.

The Short Hill (10-15 secs)

Type of Athletes: Sprinters, Jumpers, Hurdlers, Pole Vaulters and occasionally, Throwers. An 800-m athlete who responds well to speed could be included in this workout every once in a while.

Hill Grade: It really depends on what you'd like to get out of the workout. I like working the athletes towards muscle fatigue, so I like my hills with a moderate to severe grade. However, when we are working on high knee drive, I stay around a moderate grade. 

Coaching Focus: Knee & arm drive is crucial for this workout. You want the athletes to use power to push themselves up the hill. Each stride should fall beneath them, and as they push, the bending knee and straight leg (trailing leg) knee are parallel. The line from the athlete's shoulder blades to the trailing leg should be straight. This is important because knee drive and power helps them come out of starting blocks better, and improves the drive phase of the sprint. 

Caveats: You have to watch the athletes carefully, because if the form is bad then injury can happen in the knees, hips or lower back. If the athlete is already weak in those areas, performing some strength exercises beforehand is very beneficial. 

Practice Timeline & Considerations: I tend to introduce hill running early in the off-season. If we're not doing weight room days, we're typically running hills. From preseason to early season, I try to have a hill practice at least once a week. In the crux of the season, I'll try to throw one in just to keep them fresh- but I increase the recovery time between runs so I don't wear them down. Hard practices mid-season and towards the end are still okay, you just have to know your athletes. 

The Long Hill (20-60secs, or longer)

Type of Athletes: Mid-distance and distance athletes, and occasionally 400-m runners who need more aerobic work.

Hill Grade: This is usually a moderate climb; nothing too steep to exasperate the athletes, but enough to make them work.

Coaching Focus: With this exercise I make them focus on their breathing and maintaining their form all the way up and through the crest of the hill. This helps them focus on how they finish their races. Beyond the 30-40sec mark, the aerobic capacity really starts to kick in; so when they're racing to the top, the lungs are working to get as much oxygen to the blood and muscles as possible. Nice long hills are where distance runners are made.

Caveats: Again, like the short hill work, watching form is crucial. Pull athletes from the workout if they aren't getting it right.

Practice Timeline & Considerations: Similar to the short hill guidelines, I like to introduce this in the off-season and preseason. However, with this group in the preseason, I would do hills at le ast twice a week in order to build them up for the grind of the season- especially if we're starting with cross country. 

Interval Training: Why It's Beneficial

Interval training can be a lot of fun for both coach and athlete. Interval training speeds up and slows down the practice, giving the athletes time to recover, and provides the coach time to evaluate and adjust. I incorporate interval training all the time in practices, because I think it is incredibly worthwhile. It builds muscle endurance, it aids in quickening recovery time, and it helps the athletes learn how their bodies react to different types of speed and distances. There are so many variations of interval training you can do, I am only going to share two variations I regularly use in practice.

Types of Interval Training

My Favorite- Fartlek (speed play)

If you were once (or still are) a runner, you are probably familiar with Fartlek training. Fartlek training allows runners to have segments of steady running, mixed in with short bursts of sprinting. It's a beautiful thing because the steady pacing builds aerobic capacity and muscle endurance, while the bursts of speed allows the muscle to work and works on the anaerobic system. Every time we had a Fartlek practice the athletes really enjoyed it. 

Run-Rest/Exercise-Run

Another type of interval training I do regularly is a Run-rest/exercise-Run. Early in the preseason and early season, I do a run/rest/run. Meaning that the athletes would run a particular distance, rest a prescribed time, and run another distance.

Example: For my mid-distance runners I would normally do a 400m/90sec/800m x2; so they would have some time to recover from the 400m run before they did a 800m run. As the season progresses and I see weak areas, or want to keep them moving, I move to a Run/Exercise/Run interval training.

I did this a lot during the indoor track season, because sometimes due to weather, we would have to be indoors- so space is limited. Indoors, one of my typical workouts would be: 2 hallways/ 100 jumping jacks + 60sec plank/ 4 hallways/ 60sec wall sit/2 hallways/ 3 stairwell runs.

It keeps them moving. In the indoor interval example, the running would end up being the recovery portion instead of the exercise.  

Conclusion: Don't Back Away from Hills or Intervals

A strong track + field program will have some type of hill or interval work -- it simply cannot be avoided. As an athlete, you have to approach these exercises with a mindset that these workouts are going to help you out. Embrace the hills. Attack the interval training. Most of the time, yes, it's going to be hard. But also, most of the time, it's going to be worth it.


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