Hill sprinting has a few unique benefits that may make it the perfect solution for an athlete looking to get faster, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
For some reason, the good old-fashioned hill is slowly dying out from many training programs. Perhaps the advent of sleds has turned a traditional staple into a less relevant option, or the difficulty in evaluating training sessions is the cause. I have used hills for years and consider them just as valuable as resisted sprints. True, some differences exist that will put hill sprinting at a disadvantage compared to resisted acceleration sprints, but it also has a few unique benefits that may be the perfect solution for an athlete looking to get faster.
In this blog post I will review the science, the training option, and the instructional needs of incline sprinting. Obviously, most of the information shared will focus on acceleration, but a few elements will be on return to play strategies as well as peak velocity training. I won’t cover decline sprinting, as that deserves a comprehensive article due to the risks involved. If you have an inclined surface or treadmill and want to get more out of it, please read this first, as I am sure it will bring up points that are helpful for the planning and execution of your speed training.
Defining and Exploring the Incline Modality
I wanted to be very careful with my words because “hills” mean different things to different people. Search for hill running and you may get videos of Jerry Rice running for minutes or see sand dune work by Kevin Durant’s coach. For the sake of simplicity, incline running is when a majority of the repetition is up a sloped surface.
Now for the fun part: More specifically, the math behind sloped surfaces. I hate doing this to you, but if you don’t care about the geometry, you will be disappointed later when you train athletes and don’t see the results you expected due to application errors.
When talking about incline running, it’s good to use the terms “grade” or “gradient.” Commonly, people use the expression “rise over run” when building a sloped surface, as it helps those constructing an incline to visually see the math. The run is the horizontal component, and the rise is the vertical distance up from the start to end. For geometry fans, the hypotenuse is the slope length, or the actual running distance of the incline. I tend to use the term “slope” for naturally existing grass hills, and “ramps” and “inclines” for human-made structures.
The nomenclature is tricky at times, but the main point is to think about what units or expression you will use when recording workouts or if you wish to construct an incline structure sometime down the road. You can use angle, percentage, ratio, and other units to depict the slope of a surface. Pick one but know them all, as it becomes important later when you need to calculate work and other outputs.
The longer and more variable the sloped surface, the more likely it’s great for 400m athletes or early conditioning work for speed athletes, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The most common issue with sloped surfaces is that natural options have variable inclinations to them, sometimes finishing with a rounded or taper shape. The longer and more variable the surface, the more likely it’s great for 400m athletes or early conditioning work with speed athletes. If a surface is natural, the likelihood of it being constant is improbable, so I like to include the term “mean gradient.” While this may not matter with everyone, coaches who are trying to quantify relationships or prescribe specific workouts for adaptations often become frustrated with the variance between steps or sessions.
Some coaches ask if long staircases, the ones that can be run on, count as incline running. Technically, this is difficult to answer, as the ground contact is flat while the next landing is elevated. Thus, I would say it’s more of a hybrid, but it certainly has value and can be part of the conversation since some similarities exist between both modes of terrain.
I will cover the common types of incline sprinting modalities, along with treadmills, another unique option for coaches. Bounding and jumping up hills or inclines is also done in many training circles, but outside of a sprint with a little bit of extension, it’s something I don’t feel comfortable writing about as I don’t have experience with it. I do cover incline plyometrics slightly with the Polish Box article, and box jumps and repeated box hops are also topics that are available to review now and in the future.
Necessary Slope Science You Should Know
A combination of physics and human anatomy is necessary to fully comprehend what truly goes on with incline sprinting. Also keep in mind that some research is conflicting, as the findings may be accurate, but due to differences in design, you need to purposely filter (not cherry-pick) what is useful and what is not applicable. For example, the population studied is important, as well as the speed of the running. It makes no sense to study kinesiology research for jogging up a hill when we need to know what is going on with athletes at high velocities.
I hate sounding like a reductionist with a complex motion like running, but for practical coaching purposes, we need to summarize the changes into a few categories. Most of the changes from incline slope running are stride parameters and metabolic demand, and the changes in mechanics do elicit different muscle recruitment alterations to the lower body. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much information of interest studied for the upper body outside of trunk angle. Studies usually use instrumented treadmills, but some have used ramps from training centers.
Overall, the significant changes in sprinting uphill are that ground contact times increase due to the extra work creating propulsion. In fact, the positive work provides a longer propulsion period and the negative work is reduced. We don’t have enough research to speculate if this has any specific long-term adaptation, such as any fascicle length changes to leg muscles, but it’s worth mentioning.
One of the best-designed studies comes from the French collaboration including JB Morin. To me, it’s the most telling study because it includes a great population and very detailed measurements with electromyography, very useful stride parameters, and of course, kinematics of the body. Unfortunately, it looks like a sampling failure occurred during their investigation of the glute muscles, so we will have to use other studies to decode what is happening.
There’s good news, though—another sloped running investigation (with Morin) summarized other papers and covered a wide array of studies, and I have included many of the findings in the charts above and below. Metabolic changes, specifically oxygen transfer, lactate production, and even glycogen utilization, all increase as the incline becomes steeper. I don’t have much to conclude, but I find that if you want to really spike up lactate, you need to tweak the velocity and resistance so that the work rate is high.
Most drills, even locomotive ones, are not appropriate for hills, says @spikesonly. #inclinesprinting Click To Tweet
Obviously, this is all about sprinting, but of course coaches will ask about bounding, jumping, and hopping because of videos seen on social media. Most drills, even locomotive ones, are not appropriate for hills. You can easily preserve momentum slowly at a walking pace with many track movements, but up a hill you are either exposed or the slope discourages heel-to-toe motions.
Positive work requires a foot strike that is forefoot dominant—something that many heel strikers don’t favor—but I have no supportive research to know how heel strike runners interact with hills differently than mid or forefoot strikers. Sprinters and power athletes are likely to be forefoot dominant due to the fact acceleration matters more than an economical locomotion strategy. Curved banked running has been researched, but most programs featured either flat curved running or straight linear incline sprinting.
I would like to see more incline sprint research, as bend or curved sprinting seems to be better investigated. My interests would be how to profile and apply specific programs based on some sort of evaluation process, as well as see more intervention studies. It will take another decade to get a better handle on incline sprints, mainly because there is not much organic interest from coaches asking for it.
If coaches want science to get its hands dirty, they need to be vocal on what they want and collaborate with expert researchers. I hope we can get enough information out there in 10 years so we can start designing better slope structures, rather than a lot of guesswork such as the monsters we see built now. I cover more on design below, but we need science to make sure we know what we should be building in the first place.
Common Approaches to Incline Sprinting
Don’t expect a lot of sets and reps here, but I will share a few examples with enough detail to get started. Hills and incline sprints are more art than science, due to the nature of variance in the incline slopes. When you don’t share similar grades or percentages, it’s hard to get on the same page with what works and what may need to change. I personally feel that the majority of benefits from hills will improve specific work capacity and help with the general ability to accelerate the body. I don’t know if we should see sleds and resisted sprints as acceleration-only and incline sprints as a general strength exercise, but I believe we need to do more research. Therefore, I am cautious to rank the value of incline sprinting with extreme precision.
We do have enough science and practice to make conservative recommendations in training, and I strongly believe in the ankle and hip benefits of incline sprints, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
We do have enough science and practice to make conservative recommendations in training, and I strongly believe in the ankle and hip benefits of incline sprints. Based on the grade, it appears that the steeper options will have more mechanical work vertically for the plantar flexors, hip flexors (concentrically), and maybe the muscles around the hip when in extension. While horizontal force matters in acceleration, only when vertical force is sufficient does an athlete have the opportunity to really push properly. As the athlete rises, the relative abilities to express force decrease, relying on rapid rates of force and stiffness to get the job done.
Regardless of the changes in muscle recruitment and stride, for some reason arm action tends to clean up with hills. I don’t have a good theory on the reason for this, but I think the longer propulsion times and an emphasis on knee lift do act like a self-correction similar to wickets or the stick drill.
Video 1. The “short and steep” mode is very similar in nature to resisted sleds or other horizontal resistance. By adding a flying run into the hill, you can reduce the sluggish steps you tend to see with acceleration if the athlete conserves speed. I prefer longer and lower inclines, and I look at foot contacts as a way to personalize the training.
Based on the collective wisdom of coaches I have asked, it seems that the most common training approaches focus on the big four of metabolic, muscular, mechanical, and mental qualities. Sure, details matter, and similar to the sled principles, the training for incline sprinting has a few cardinal rules. For application purposes, the four themes are the following:
- Mechanical: Coaches can use hills to reinforce positions and movements they believe will help the athlete learn or get exposure to better sprinting mechanics.
- Metabolic: Athletes who perform incline sprints will significantly raise their physiological responses to a much higher degree than level sprints, and this is due to the extra work required with incline sprinting.
- Muscular: The muscular recruitment with EMG and modeling makes hills a possibility for prescriptive loading with athletes, especially those who need work at the hip and ankle.
- Mental: Hills are sometimes hard physically, and they do add a degree of accomplishment with the literal and symbolic ascension, even if it’s short and fast.
I have used hills for rehabilitation, specifically grass, because they are lower and more oriented to strengthening-type runs than high velocity. I am not sure if the EMG studies are strong enough to say with 100% confidence that the hamstring group decreases recruitment during the stance phase, but I am currently leaning toward that argument. I don’t want to build a case or philosophy behind “muscle activation or bust” research, as kinetics and kinematics matter and the recent hip thrust and back squat science is evidence of that notion.
Even such a group of measures is limited, since the composition of other training elements will interact surprisingly when testing an athlete months later. Return to play requires efforts and loading that realistically prepares an athlete for success, not just buys time so a tissue has time to heal. Hills or incline sprints are great for unloading the hamstring due to the speed and type of contractions.Hills or incline sprints are great for unloading the hamstring due to the speed and type of contractions, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A few popular techniques with hills use a flying run into the hill and fight deceleration if the slope is steep, and many coaches use various external load solutions like vests and sometimes wearable resistance on the limbs. I have seen some coaches try to combine horizontal resistance, but I think it starts to get a little confusing as to what you are trying to do when the resistance isn’t clear to the body. I may change my mind, but for now it’s what I believe in. With training, we need clarity of the signal, rather than a focus on adding more ingredients.
Regardless of the repetition distance and rest interval, I recommend repeating the workout to see if an athlete is making progress rather than just including it as a “hope and wish” session. I find that, eccentrically, athletes tend to be able to do more hill sprints than level counterparts, but the quality of work will always be lower due to the speed obviously decreasing.
Video 2. Treadmill sprinting is a valuable option for many programs, and Paul Beckwith uses a SHREDmill with his athletes. Most coaches who are in cold weather areas with facility limitations want speed, and the use of professional treadmills is a common decision.
Now for treadmill sprinting. Most speed development programs use intervals at various inclines to teach and train. I don’t have too much experience outside of conditioning, usually in situations where we have very few options. There’s a lot of traction happening down south with the SHREDmill, but overall, most programs save treadmill sprints (incline) for intervals. Curved treadmill running is technically level: the foot contacts are similar to running on very low grade. Due to the catch happening early during stance, the hamstring recruitment may be an advantage with pulling-style athletes, but it’s a theory that needs scientific investigation.
Using Sports Technology for Feedback and Testing
I don’t want to harp on sports technology too much, mainly because it’s easy to spend hours talking about various measurements, but then the soul of the workout is lost because the mind takes over too much. I am not against collecting sprint times or even performing electromyography, but sometimes putting a watch away can give an athlete a break from the pressure of hitting specific times or velocities. I do think, however, that it’s useful to treat natural courses with the same respect as flat sprinting, so it’s perfectly fine to measure what you think is useful for your program.
I use velocity patterns to determine if a hill is a power or speed option. For example, below is a power option that is helpful for those who don’t include transferable explosive work in the weight room or field.I use velocity patterns to determine if a hill is a power or speed option, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
You can derive the majority of information from total times of the repetition, but if you want to get splits, you can. Contact times usually require camera or IMU sensors if the surface is grassy or uneven. Ramps or human-made structures can use contact grids if available. I also recommend using heart rate or NIRS, and if you have it, sports thermography. I don’t know if other measures are important besides a good clip (video kinematics), but for the most part, speed and contact times are nice.
I realize that in-shoe pressure mapping is growing, but for the most part I like a good video recording and gathering of times. Several research papers have calculations available, but sharing data with other coaches requires the grade and distance, along with the times and efforts. Anything more than that is a luxury.
Of course, treadmills are the most convenient for research studies because the velocity and incline are easy to program or record. Instrumentation treadmills are nice options for many because the device captures all of the metrics without any heavy lifting by the user. While convenient, many options are not popular with speed athletes because they don’t feel comfortable with acceleration. It’s not that treadmills aren’t useful for acceleration, it’s just that athletes sometimes prefer a natural surface, regardless if it’s non-motorized or not.
Facility Design – Work with the Right Architect or Pay the Price
I have been part of a lot of facility planning and will tell you one cautionary tale with just enough detail to help illustrate a point, but vague enough so as not to embarrass those involved. The No. 1 recommendation I have with slope design is to get the exact dimensions on the blueprint ahead of time, as some builders will outsource the project multiple times. I have seen great projects turn into dangerous training environments because the essential components got lost in translation. Also, what the slope looks like is half the battle, as many good designs for getting recruits excited fail to perform in the wild.
I have seen coaches uncomfortable with making the call on what grade to use because sometimes only one hill or incline can be installed. Don’t freak out and get worried, as you can modify training to accommodate the single choice. If you can build an Aztec-style solution with multiple slopes, remember that athletes can bound up and use the surface for more than just running.
Due to the return to play programs wanting to be more progressive, ask sports medicine what they prefer for deceleration-type movements, but remember that incline sprinting is about acceleration needs. If you are a strength coach or high-performance manager, here are a few questions you should ask when working with architectural firms.
- How does the slope surface respond to heavy rain and extreme heat?
- What surface will be used, and will the slope be rounded or flat?
- What type of maintenance is necessary for the groundskeeper?
- Are electronic cabling or outlets planned for the structure?
- Do the athletes have a way to move up and down safely and effectively?
- Is the decline option accurate and precise for safe overspeed training?
- How do the congregation areas manage support staff and coaches?
- What shoe types or footwear is required to successfully navigate the slope?
I have more questions that are important when wrapping up early design discussions, but the ones above are all based on bad experience. The saying that rules are usually written in blood typically means a bad experience creates a law or reminder, so it’s not repeated. If you had been a fly on the wall with some of the conference calls, you would have thought the project was building another great pyramid of Giza.
Another point I should share is that I am not a fan of a coach recommending a slope or set of slopes they have never used. While I understand many facilities will be shared, it’s best to get a solution that fits within the parameter of the group, rather than use the pet angle of one person. As soon as the coach moves on, the rest of the coaches and future professionals will have to settle for something that appeases nobody. Work with sport scientists and other veteran coaches, don’t rely on a young coach to find the answer by asking around on social media.
Sprinting Faster May Mean Going Higher
Sprinting up a hill or ramp is only part of the equation. Just like sleds, we can’t assume that loading something specific will yield gains that will show up tomorrow. Sleds are more direct, but the hills are just as valuable when training groups and advanced athletes.Sleds are more direct, but hills are just as valuable when training groups and advanced athletes, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I don’t recommend adding incline sprinting unless you have a good surface that can be easily accessed over the season. Conversely, sometimes one good hill workout will click with an athlete, so don’t give up on using sloped surfaces if you don’t live in an area with a lot of good options. For years, hills have worked for countless champions, and many athletes find them challenging and even enjoyable. Add in sloped sprints and longer runs, as they have passed the test of time with flying colors.
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