Tools of the Trade: Hill Sprints

In this "Tools of the Trade" series, we highlight important training tools, methods, and protocols to help improve performance and health. This post will focus on one of the most foundational tools in improving power-endurance, acceleration, and mental toughness: Hill Sprints.  And if you're into this kind of stuff, be sure to check out my last two Tools of the Trade posts: Barbells and the GHD.

Hill sprints are the cheapest form of high-intensity conditioning available, as long as you can find a sizeable enough hill. Sprinting uphill is advantageous for promoting a number of sport performance factors. Regular hill sprinting can help increase lower body muscle mass, improve work capacity, lower body fat, improve overall sprint mechanics, and help to increase acceleration. And let's not forget: you'll develop some serious mental fortitude depending the hill's grade (steepness), length, and the amount of rest you take in-between each bout. Even if you're one of the unfortunate few living in relatively flat landscapes (Seattle, on the otherhand, has hills on hills on hills!) you can still train for the same relative performance factors using a treadmill that has an incline adjustment. 

Hill sprints are notable tools for developing power-endurance. Power-endurance translates to the ability of an athlete to produce a high rate of force, for an extended amount of time, with a minimal reduction in quality from beginning to end. The characteristics of power-endurance translate fluidly to the field. Hill sprints can be used to replicate the work and recovery intervals seen on the field. Tailoring hill sprints to fit your conditioning demands comes down purely to how far you need to sprint and how long you need to rest in your sport.

Mechanically, hill sprints work in favor of the athlete. The incline of hill sprints means that maximal speed can't be obtained, and reduces the risk of injury caused by impact with the ground. Also due to the incline, an athlete will naturally lean into the run, minimizing overstriding and placing the hip extensor muscles under more stress due to the increased demand to battle gravity. This translates to better sprint mechanics on flat ground, helping minimize the amount of vertical displacement an athlete may produce during sprinting. 

While the sprint mechanics improve, so do the muscles behind those mechanics. Hill sprints can increase the force produced by the hip and knee extensors. Not only do the muscles adapt to producing more force, but time between each stride islessened. This combination demonstrates better improvements in acceleration, which is favorable for athletes playing sports where they need to utilize explosive bursts of speed. Hill sprints can be a great tool for developing that next-level acceleration that sets you apart from the rest.

The more challenging the hill sprint, the shorter the sprint duration required to achieve the desired results. Efficiency at its finest. That being so, it's important to wait to add hill sprints into training until there is a base level of sprint conditioning already established. Hill sprints can leave you with your lungs on fire, and maybe bent over a bush emptying your stomach. Treat them with the respect they deserve, and you'll reap the benefits without the pitfalls. 

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Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, is the Head of Performance Training at Volt Athletics and is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. Jace manages Volt program design, content development, and educational resources for schools, clubs, and organizations. Jace is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) and holds a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Seattle Pacific University. Follow Jace on Twitter @VoltCoachJace.