Hill Training for Cross Country Runners

Posted by Scott Christensen

Winter and summer training periods are the ideal time in the annual plan to develop effective hill racing skills and to use various forms of hill training to develop strength in cross country runners.  Most geographical locations in the United States possess ideal physical changes in topography which are suitable for hill tactics and training.  The extreme mountainous regions and the very flat areas do provide challenges to planning effective workout strategies, but these can be overcome with creative thinking on the part of the coach.  It is just as important when you do hill training as it is what you do in this training domain.

The essence of the great Arthur Lydiard’s training program was the development of strength.  He tried to accomplish tremendous strength gains in his athletes by prescribing an abundance of training miles as well as bouts of interval running on sand dunes and hills.  Lydiard recognized that different hill characteristics have different training effects and adaptations, so he varied the prescribed work to fit the athlete and the period in the training cycle.  Arthur Lydiard was one of the first coaches to incorporate hill training into the annual plan.  He advocated for up to five weeks of 1-3 sessions per week of hill training in any given training phase.  He also advocated for hill training to cycle in these five week blocks of time throughout the general and specific preparation periods, but then be eliminated during the general and specific competition periods of training.  Lydiard determined that hill training helped delay the peaking period in an athlete and when that runner progressed into the competitive phase it was time to rid the athlete of that training yoke.

Hill training is anaerobic work, but it is not what we might call speed work.  It is resistance work where a stronger than normal force application must be applied by the athlete against the surface to accomplish success in the workout.  One of the notable effects of hill training is a longer and more powerful stride.  This can be detected in the areas of knee-lift, ankle fexion, and hip extension.  One of the goals of hill training, beyond improved anaerobic energy system metabolism, is to improve the athlete’s stride and enhance muscular strength in preparation of the subsequent sharpening work that will be done during the competitive phase of the training cycle.


For Coach Christensen’s tips for cross country winter training read “Winter Development in Cross Country Training”


During the five week blocks of training time athletes should perform most of the hill work using their normal running technique, but some variety may be good from time to time.  For example, the Lydiard technique of hill-bounding and also modified skip bounding can sometimes be introduced to the more advanced cross country runners.  Hill bounding must be performed on a grass or earthen surface as asphalt is much too hard to hill-bound on.  Lydiard learned this technique from the great Australian coach Percy Cerutty who developed effective hill-bounding routines on the beach sand dunes of Australia working with the likes of Herb Elliot.  The technique worked because the surface was soft enough to accommodate the work.


Training Resource:  Peaking Workouts for Distance Runners


Once the workout surface has been selected, the parameters left to decide are the intensity of each bout of work and the total volume of the training session.  The rest interval between each bout of work should be active with generally just a jog recovery back down the hill viewed as adequate.  However, if the uphill is less than 50 meters in length, then an extended loop to the bottom should be prescribed.

Hill length varies in every town as does the pitch of the hill.  Use common sense in choosing the proper combination of pitch and length in prescribing work.  A general suggestion of the total volume of anaerobic work to done in a single session would be to limit it to no more than one mile.  For example, the anaerobic work prescribed could be divided into 8 x 200 meter hill, 3 x 500 meter hill or 15 x 60 meter hill.  The training theme should be, the shorter the hill, the greater the pitch.  The goal is try to achieve maximum heart rate near the top of any of the hill you work with.

Periodizing the hill workouts should be schemed so that the longer hills are done in the general preparation period such as winter or summer training.  As the athletes progress to the specific preparation period, the hills should get shorter in length and steeper in pitch for a different training effect.

A training model could resemble the following:  June 25-August 1, five weeks total, one day per week, a typical session would include a two mile general warm-up followed by 6 x 300 meter hill, jog recovery, followed by a three mile cool down.  Take three weeks off.  August 21-October 1, five weeks total, one day per week, a typical session would include a two mile general warm-up, followed by 10 x 150 meter hill, jog recovery, followed by a three mile cool down.  Physiologists consider the overall recovery of these workouts to be about 24 hours.  Repeat the summer block during the period January 1 – February 10 and then repeat again March 5 – April 15.


Want Every Single Cross Country Workout from June Through Nationals? 

Check out:  Training Model for High School Cross Country


Many coaches also add hilly routes to their arsenal of continuous runs done during the season or in preparation for the season.  Great idea, as this adds variety and interest to base runs or long runs.  However, do not substitute these types of runs for dedicated hill training sessions.  Too many hills in a route would not be appropriate for timed VO2 max workouts or tempo runs done at a fraction of VO2 max pace.


To read more about cross country running from Scott Christensen, Preparation of the Elite Junior Cross Country Runner




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Race Strategy and Tactics for the Endurance Events: 800m – 5000m

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Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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