If you’re looking for a brutally efficient way to increase your speed for track or team sports, you can take advantage of the simplest of tools: a hill. Olympic athletes such as British pole vaulter Holly Bleasdale and American volleyball star Misty May-Treanor know that chugging their way up slopes helps them become ultra-fit. If you live in the flatlands, you can substitute a treadmill workout; otherwise, get ready to cop a can-do attitude and tame some altitude.
Serious speed athletes may work out with parachutes, weight sleds, partner towing bands and similar accoutrements. But as Holly and Misty demonstrate, a simple hill provides plenty of challenge, translating into improved stride length and frequency -- with no need for an assistant or specialized equipment. Hill training also doubles as terrific conditioning, not only for sprints but for 5Ks and 10Ks. Bestselling author Jeff Galloway notes in his book "Galloway's 5K and 10K Running" that hill repeats strengthen the legs for running “better than any exercise or equipment.” They provide an excellent cardio workout with minimal wear and tear on your joints and muscles, according to marathoner and coach Benji Durden.
“There’s no such thing as a bad hill-training run,” observes competitive runner and coach Rick Morris. Of the nearly infinite variations of hills, grades, distances and repetitions you could design, Galloway recommends his favorite. You’ll need an slight grade, just 3 to 7 percent, so you can develop a good rhythm -- not as easy to achieve on a too-steep hill. Run up at 85 percent of your maximum effort for 60 to 90 seconds and walk down, completing a total of two to three rounds. Add one repetition a week until you can complete eight to 12 reps.
While Galloway recommends slight grades, steep hills come into play as well. To further hone your quads, hamstrings and calf muscles for speed, sprint up a steep hill multiple times, recommends "Running Times" magazine. Perform four to five reps of around 50 meters, walking down the hill and resting two to three minutes between each. Work up to eight to 12 reps. Go for 90 to 95 percent of your maximum speed.
Runners typically devote one day mid-week, either Tuesday or Wednesday, to hill training for speed. Start with 15 minutes of warming up by jogging lightly and performing arm swings, high knees and butt kickers. After four to six weeks of hill training, you can switch to intervals and Fartleks to continue to hone your speed, with occasional returns to the hills to keep challenging your cardio and lower-body fitness.
An award-winning writer and editor, Rogue Parrish has worked at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and at newspapers from England to Alaska. This world adventurer and travel book author, who graduates summa cum laude in journalism from the University of Maryland, specializes in travel and food -- as well as sports and fitness. She's also a property manager and writes on DIY projects.