A big thanks to Intern Bree for shooting, editing and producing the above video which you can watch HERE. It was a great workout to show you guys because I think it’s one that a lot of people are missing in their training “diet.” I think most of us know about hill repeats right? You run hard up a hill, jog back down for recovery and go again. Simple enough. And that’s a good workout for sure. However, you can spice it up a bit by turning it into a true hill circuit as was first introduced by the legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard back in the 1960s.

My own introduction to hill circuits came in the mid 90s when my high school coach, Jim Linhares (huge Lydiard disciple), had us doing all sorts of crazy stuff up and down the grounds around the beautiful Spanish Pavilion in St. Louis’ Forest Park:

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That crazy stuff included bounding up short hills, running race pace up long hills, doing sprints on the flats and striding the downhills. He even threw some push-ups and crunches in there! Fast forward nearly twenty years later and I got to watch another great coach, Greg McMillan, putting his professional athletes through a wicked set of hill circuits at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, AZ. I even jumped in with 27:41 10k man Aaron Braun and 1:03 half marathoner Scott Smith once while they were doing them (I didn’t make it very far). Then, this past spring, I had the privilege of learning even more about the method behind all this madness at a Lydiard Foundation Coaching Clinic.

So here’s the deal; as you may have read before there is a ton to be gained from doing some fast uphill running. It forces you to have good form as you can’t “shuffle” up a hill, it works the calf and quad muscles and it’s great practice at running hard while being tired as you’ll definitely be tired at the top of a hill. But you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t take full advantage of a hilly area in your neck of the woods with a full hill circuit workout, which includes much more than traditional uphill repeats. Here’s the how and why of what to include as you set up your own Lydiard style hill circuit:

1) Short “Pop-Up” Hill – A pop-up hill (another term from my HS coach) is a short, steep hill that takes about 10 to 20 seconds to climb in it’s entirety. I like to have athletes sprint these hills nearly all out. It’s great for working the speed muscles, thus making hill circuits a perfect workout in the phase of training that precedes fast work on the track. This primes the muscle groups for that sort of work. Olympic Gold Medalist Frank Shorter called hills “speedwork in disguise” and he was right.

2) Downhill Stride – You can see Matt and Eric doing these in the video above. I have them do these at 3k (or two mile) race pace. We use about a 100 meter slight downhill for this which I would recommend for any of you. You don’t want it to be too steep because then it becomes dangerous. These are awesome for two main reasons in my opinion. Number one is you’ll encounter these types of hills in races and you want your body to know how to run fast on them. So many people take it easy on every downhill they ever come across in training and then when they encounter them in a race they feel awkward. That’s crazy. Downhills should be a place where you gain time! The second thing for me is that they force the body to turn the legs over faster than normal. One of the major keys to being as fast as you can be is to spend as little time on the ground as possible. For that reason, running downhill strides is especially awesome for those of you who weren’t blessed with a lot of natural speed and/or those of you who are stuck in the “marathon rut” and have neglected speed work over the years.

3) Long, Gradual Uphill – Not all of us live in an area where we can find a 600 meter long gradual uphill like the one you see the guys doing in the video. It would be great to find something as close as you can though. You want the hill to be steep enough to be a challenge for sure, but not so steep that one time up it leaves you completely spent. Remember, this is just one piece of the workout! And Matt and Eric run 100 miles a week. For most of us, I think having our long, gradual hill be 300 to 400 meters in length would be totally fine. I have them do this at half marathon race effort. That’s not really all that fast as compared to a traditional uphill repeat where you’re grabbing your knees and looking for the nearest trashcan when you’re done. As I learned from the Lydiard clinic there is a ton to be gained just from running uphill, period. It doesn’t have to always be fast. Think about it. If you did come across a hill like that in a race (which you probably will) you wouldn’t sprint up it as fast as you can. You’d want to maintain your race “effort” up the entire thing and then feel good enough to quickly get right back to your race “pace” as soon as you crest the top. Practice makes perfect.

4) Long, Gradual Downhill – This is probably the one you need to be the most careful with as it’s the hardest on the body. You’ve heard of how sore people are after the Boston Marathon right? It’s because of the downhills. So if you do incorporate these you may want to only do a couple of them total per circuit at first. I have the guys do them at marathon effort, so pretty slow comparative to the rest of the workout. A good way to think of it is that you’re going faster than you would on a normal run but you should still be comfortable. You should still be able to talk to your training partner. Done right though, I think these are a very valuable part of the workout, especially if you’re training for a race with some wicked downhills like Boston or like the Bix 7 which Matt and Eric are running at the end of the month.

5) Flat, Fast Stride – I love throwing these in as a part of a hill circuit. Take a flat stretch, 150 to 200 meters long or so and run it as smooth and fast as possible. About one mile race pace is perfect. I find that because you’ve been doing everything else uphill or downhill, these can feel really good since it’s the one chance in the workout to feel more “normal.” It’s a great chance to work on form and speed.

6) Uphill Bounds up a Gentle Slope – Here’s a little treat for you. It’s a link to a video with Arthur Lydiard himself explaining hill bounding while two runners show you the proper technique. VIDEO HERE. Basically, bounding is exaggerated, almost slow-motion running that is great for strengthening the muscles and tendons all the way from the ankle to the butt. We did a lot of these in high school and I do believe they helped us cut down on injuries.

Two Quick Caveats:

1) You don’t have to include all aspects in every hill circuit you do. Feel free to mix it up. For example, we don’t really have a true pop-up hill on our circuit so we replace that with a medium long hill that we run up at 5k race pace.

2) At the top of every hill, no matter the type, I recommend extending the hard part at least 10-20 meters at the top to practice the proper way to crest a hill in a race which is to put in a little surge at the top to get back on pace as quickly as possible.

Okay guys, that’s all I’ve got for today. Happy Hill Running,



One thought on “What the heck’s a hill circuit?

  1. Craig Lindgren 4 years ago

    Thanks Ben! We were just talking about the down hills on our morning run today. I love them!