Hill sprints or interval training on steep inclines can make you a stronger, faster, more powerful runner

By Kara Cutruzzula
July 21, 2016

Let's face it, hills aren't exactly known as a runner's best friend. You probably avoid them because, well, they're tiring and can turn a light 30-minute jog into utter exhaustion.

"Most people, particularly new runners, avoid hills," says Sean Fortune, a former NCAA distance coach & USA Track and Field level II certified distance coach. "I always recommend people seek them out because it's going to be harder but [will ultimately] make you stronger."

If you've ever prepped for a race, your training plan probably threw a few hill workouts into the mix. (You might have conveniently taken a rest those days.) But even if you don't have a marathon on the horizon, all runners can reap the benefits of some hill repeats, and who knows, maybe you'll learn to love them along the way.

You'll Get More Powerful

"Hill training is very beneficial because it stresses the body differently," says Fortune, who is also the founder of Central Park Coaching. "If you're running hills consistently or doing dedicated hill sprint workouts, you should develop more powerful legs and stronger lower leg strength-think: your ankles, calves, and feet-which could aid in improvements with running form." He does note, however, that if you have bad form, "gains will be minimal at best unless you take steps to work on improving whatever you're doing wrong." And since hills put more stress on the lower legs, shin splints or calf strains are a possibility, so be sure to start incorporating these hills slowly and in small doses.

You'll Crush Your Goals

Age. Experience. Athleticism. Injury. Each runner's bio is wildly different, but nearly everyone can incorporate hills in some way. If you're running two or three times a week, Fortune recommends taking a path with a little bit of a hilly terrain. But if you're running five days a week, you could start to incorporate interval-style hill runs or a repetition workout of running up a hill and then walking or slowly jogging back down. After some practice, this type of work will make your "regular" runs feel easier. (Another way to build strength, stamina, and speed? Take our 30-Day Run Into Shape Challenge.)

You'll Gain a Mental Edge

This benefit is huge. If you run hills regularly, you'll be well-prepared for all your other workouts. When we're doing a workout on a hilly course, remind yourself that all your training is to help you get over the jump (literally) of the hilly sections on your run, and everything that follows will be easier, says Fortune. "It's a good reminder of when you're in the stress of running up the hill that this is not how you're going to feel once it flattens out." (Get outside and clear your head while practicing your hills at these 7 Trails to Run Before You Die.)

You'll Understand Quality Over Length

Any run that you repeat over and over again is going to start to feel "normal"-and therefore also lose some of its benefits along the way. So if you're running a few times a week, and one of those days is a hill session, you can count that as a "quality" day, says Fortune. "Whether it's a rolling course, hill sprints, or doing a hill workout on a treadmill, you want to set up that day so you're feeling the freshest, and afterward you're not doing anything too muscularly demanding." This means something like a restorative swim the next day, not CrossFit.

You'll Watch Them Get Easier

Remember when running a mile was the worst? Running your first few hills will feel the same. Your heart rate goes through the roof, and more muscles are working-and working harder-but the point is, the more you do hills, the easier they become. You might even start to look forward to your hill days. After all, it's nice to not have to think about navigating your route. You see a hill. You climb it. You jog down. Repeat.

You'll Learn to Embrace Pain

OK, not like crippling pain. But when you learn to embrace the hard effort that hills require, you boost your confidence. Even experienced runners can find hills difficult. "I've convinced myself over the years that I like them," says Fortune. "I say bring it on. Let's make it harder."

You'll Learn the Pattern of Hills

The best part of a hill is that it's temporary. There's always a peak, and always a downhill. So however miserable you're feeling in the middle of a half-mile hill workout (or on the Boston Marathon's infamous Heartbreak Hill), you'll know that it's a short-term feeling. All that pressure and stress will fade away once you hit flat land.

You'll Practice Positive Self-Talk

Because there's nowhere you need it more than at the start of your sixth hill repeat. To get runners in the zone, Fortune says, "I tell them to use visual imagery of a gazelle running up a hill, to be light on their feet." He also repeats the mantra: "Give me more, give me more, give me more," which signified moving toward fear, rather than away from it. Be prepared to take your confidence as a runner to new heights.

You'll Be One with the Greats

Marathons have been dominated recently by uber-fast and efficient Ethiopian and Kenyan runners. Guess what their training terrain looks like? Just watch this video of East African runners conquering hills-and see how easy they make it look-and it's hard to not be inspired to find a hill to call your own.