If given a choice, running hill sprints is my preferred method of conditioning. It taxes the lungs, legs, and most importantly, your mind. You get a big enough hill and you’ll grow a big enough pair of balls after a year of running it. Three to four workouts a week on a big hill, done over the course of a year, will change your body and your mind.
Like many kids growing up in the Chicago area, Walter Payton was a huge influence. Not only was he a great athlete and person, his work ethic and commitment to his profession was legendary. Running hills was something that became synonymous with Payton and was often credited with giving him the physical and mental edge that made him great.
My mentor, Darren Llewellyn, first introduced me to hill sprints. He took me over to Sanders Hill in Northbrook, IL and had me run up and walk down until I felt queasy. I continued this regimen two to three days a week throughout high school and the strength, speed, and endurance I got from it were amazing. Legs got bigger and stronger. I got faster. And I was in incredible shape.
Of course, getting people to run them with me was almost impossible. A few people would offer to join me but would all mysteriously vanish after one or two sessions. The most consistent member of my hill running crew was a cross-country runner named Bruce Obog. I’ve no idea where Bruce is today, but if you happen to know, please send him a big thank you for me.
There are two downsides about running hills:
• It sucks balls.
• You have to find a good hill to run.
The first is easy to overcome — just man up. The second, not so much; but I live in the very flat state of Ohio and still found a great hill. Now this took about two years of half-ass looking and testing out many duds before I found my Big Mother.
The first thing I did was ask some of the locals as I’m not from this area. The second thing I did was Google search “Sledding Hill” with a couple different cities that I live near. There were half a dozen that were good but all were a long drive. This is fine for weekend training, but I didn’t want to lift, travel, go run hills, travel back, and be home at 11pm.
I eventually found a great hill at a man-made reservoir, an option that I wouldn’t have thought of had it not been for some friends.
Whatever the length and grade of your hill is will be fine, mostly because it has to be. You’re going to be limited by what is available to you. But to give you an idea of the hills that I run:
- • The small hill is about 40 yards.
- • The big hill is about 75-80 yards.
I don’t know about the grades of the hills but they work for me. If you’re in doubt about your hill, just ask yourself this question: Will this hill give me a hell of a workout and make me awesome? If the answer is yes, you’re fine. If not, keep searching.
Now the key to starting hill running/sprinting is simply going out there and doing a few and seeing how you feel. You don’t have to make the first day into Hell Day. Make a goal for the day (my first time out I wanted to do around eight) and do it. Don’t worry about rest periods. Don’t worry about how long it takes to do. Just get it done.
Do this for a few sessions and see how your knees, ankles, legs, and lungs feel. Once you get a handle on your body and your conditioning level you can start setting goals, progressions, and how many days/week you want to do them. All of these things are going to be dependent on your specific goals.
When I began running hills again I knew for an absolute fact that my lifts were going to take a beating. I’m not an idiot. You don’t run up and down a hill four days a week and expect your lifts to suddenly increase. So once I began my hill running, the first thing I did was lower my training max significantly on my 5/3/1 workout.
I did this on ALL lifts. I also cut back on all lower body assistance lifts. Running up and walking down the hill is taxing on your legs — the workout you give your legs (and really your entire body) is phenomenal.
My workouts were very simple: I’d go to the weight room first, train my main lifts, do limited assistance work and drive to the hill. This was done four days/week.
After about three weeks, my legs started to feel a bit better and got used to the demand. Don’t be fooled, the first couple squat workouts were far from impressive. What was once a warm-up was now shaking violently when I walked it out. Mentally, it’s hard to handle but you have to start thinking differently-your legs are getting stronger but just aren’t able to display it during a squat.
So in conclusion:
- • Find a hill
- • Take three weeks to adapt to it — find out how out of shape you are.
- • Adjust weight room work to accommodate the extra running.
- • Once your body adapts, figure out your goals and execute.
- If in doubt, squat and run hills. A lot. Your body will thank you. And buy some cleats.