The picture below was taken over four years ago. It shows me running a steep hill here in Rockville, CT. Unfortunately, the image doesn’t do justice to the steepness and length of this hill. It’s one of those hills that if run at top speed, you may win an occasional battle, but after a few sprints you will certainly lose the war.
I’m fortunate to live in an area where I have access to several hills. They range from moderately difficult to downright brutal. Some are short and steep, while others continue upward for well over a mile. I’ve taken some of the best fighters in the world running on these local hills and everyone shares in the ass kickery. It doesn’t matter what kind of shape you are in, the hill always wins. And if a hill workout isn’t challenging enough, you can always run faster. Running faster is the only modification you’ll ever need. It is only a matter of time before the hill takes over.
What is the point?
Yes, hill sprints are tough. We don’t need Captain Obvious to figure this out. So, why am I bothering to tell you about hill sprints?
The point to this entry is that simple workouts are often superior. A hill workout does not require any equipment, yet can be as brutal as any. There is a mountain in my area that we’ve run for many years. I ran it when I was fighting, and I’ve taken other fighters there as a trainer. It’s free to run. Anyone can drive over and park at the bottom. It’s possibly the best workout you could perform, yet I can’t remember ever seeing anyone else running the hill. Sure, we’ll see people hiking in the woods or walking a dog, but I’ve never seen anyone else actually running the mountain.
The hill serves as a tremendous resource that is freely available to all. You don’t need to worry about changing the settings on a machine or dropping a piece of iron on your head. You don’t need instruction from an Olympic track coach to figure out how to get from point A to point B. Running isn’t complicated. We’ve all been doing it since we were toddlers. My son is just shy of 3 years old and already loves to run with my dogs. I didn’t teach him how to run. It is a natural form of locomotion. Put your head down and run as fast as you can until you reach the top of the hill. Repeat the process as many times as you’d like (or are able to).
People either don’t know about hill sprints, or perhaps know too much about them and don’t want any part.
Another theory is that people seem to discredit simplicity. They falsely assume that complexity trumps simplicity, when the opposite is often true. Perhaps it is a good time for me to share a favorite quote that I’ve referenced here before (and will likely reference again). In the words of E.F. Schumacher:
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage, to move in the opposite direction.”
Keep It Simple
It is almost as if we’ve been programmed against simplicity. Not long ago, I suggested hill sprints to a trainer who had emailed me in search of outdoor conditioning drills. He responded by saying that hills are fairly basic on their own, so would rather spice things up. My first thought was that he’s probably never run hill sprints. I have my own athletes to worry about however, and wasn’t looking for an argument. I wished him the best of luck and thought that was the end of it.
A few days passed and he emailed me again. This time he wanted feedback on his ideas for spicing things up. He proposed throwing a medicine ball uphill. He would then have the group lunge walk uphill until they had reached the ball. They would then take the ball and do 5 pushups with hands on top of the ball, and then lunge walk with it in hand for 4 more steps. They would then continue with another throw.
All I could imagine was a group of people throwing medicine balls, and then tripping over each other trying to catch the balls that were rolling back towards the bottom of the hill. There is no way a group could perform this workout without mass chaos and confusion. And even if the workout was done solo, I still don’t see the real benefit to it. What does it accomplish? Why not simply sprint to the top of the hill? If you want variety, perform an exercise at the top. For example, sprint uphill and then drop for a quick set of pushups before heading back down for another sprint. Hill sprints with pushups at the top are brutal. I used to perform this exact routine at a hill in Manchester (CT). I’d run 10 sprints with 20 pushups at the top of each sprint. I didn’t need to lug any equipment with me and I always left with a thorough ass kicking.
More Than Hills
Hill sprints are clearly effective, but I realize that hills are not always available. Hill sprints are also not the panacea to training. I didn’t write this entry hoping that you’d abandon everything that you do in place of a few hill sprints, but rather as a simple reminder that complex workouts are rarely necessary. The basics work very well if you put forth a true effort. The simple lesson behind this entry can be applied to almost any style of training, not just conditioning.
I have a friend who fought many years ago who continues to stay active with what many would consider a basic routine. Ironically, he remains in much better shape than most. He lifts weights one day, runs hill sprints with some calisthenics the next, and then hits the heavy bag on the third day. It’s a very simple 3 day plan that he repeats twice a week, always resting on Sunday. He has been doing this for as long as I can remember. He mixes things up by running different spots and changing the specific contents of certain workouts, but the general layout remains in tact. Two days of lifting, two days of running and calisthenics, and two days of heavy bag work. That’s it. He’s strong, runs in local 5k’s, and can still hold is own with the gloves. Not a bad mix for a man in his 40s.
Many could learn and benefit from his so-called basic example.
Whats up Ross. Im a Spc. in the Army with the 82nd Airborn Division. We run all the time in mant different variations but we incorporate hill sprints twice a week. One day we run 2 miles to the hill and sprint for 45 minutes rotating the platoon through and thene run the 2 miles back and on another day we go to a much shorter steeper hill and race it in pairs of two. My point is that we are all in great fighting condition with very strong legs and all we do for strength training is sprint hills.
Thanks for being there giving us your knowledge and being a true warrior. Im sure we all appreciate it!!
Unfortunately for myself and most other athtletes in Sacramento, CA we don’t have any access to hills in the immediate vicinity. We live in the valley floor so its very flat for miles in every direction. However, I’ve tried to improvise by sprinting to the top of an overpass not to far from my house. I sprint up and jog down and repeat 5 – 10 times.
Great post Ross. It is also my opinion that Hill Sprinting remains a low-cost, *simple*, *effective*, and viable long-term means to achieve great conditioning and development of the legs, hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, achilles, ankles and feet. It is also a very malleable endevour.
Two sprints which I am currently incorporating into my training are as follows:
All the best.
I agree with you 100% here Ross. The simpler the better! In terms of the workout overall, and in terms of the exercises used. Sprints on any type of surface are a good stimulus to the system. Flat-land sprints are no easier than hill sprints, if you do them for enough distance/time.
Right on Ross. Ever since reading Never Gymless I’ve been doing the hill sprint/pushup combo fairly regularly, and it just kicks my ass. The hill always wins, as Ross says, but hopefuly with some more work I can stay in the fight a little longer in the future.
I’ve gotten caught up in “fancy” workouts before, but I’ve gotten back to simplicity lately, and it’s starting to pay off.
great article! thanks for keeping me grounded just when i think hmm maybe i should do some fancy things…
“I didnâ€™t need to lug any equipment with me and I always left with a thorough ass kicking.”
made me chuckle =D
You da man! I am fortunate enough to live in the mountains so I can run hills all day, every day. It is a great workout but twice a week is all I can handle at my age (47). I first learned to love running hills at Camp Pendleton while in the US Marines. It can always kick your butt (if you are willing to run hard enough)and yet it can be done at any fitness level. You don’t need a DVD or a spandex covered instructor to explain how to do it.
Go Red Sox!!!!
Ross – good post. I have a great hill near me (The Wrekin, Telford, UK) and have done some great workouts combining pullups on trees with push ups and fast/slow running combos. You can’t beat a simple, back to nature workout like that.
This is a great post along with others I have read. You make sense and can back up what you say. I think you are a revolutionary atheletic philosopher keep up the good work!
Less is more. We do simple work in Chicago on a limestone staircase embedded in a hillside. Add a single KB and presto…insta-gym.
Thanks for the affirmation.
Great stuff Ross.
Great post! When I was growing up I was a huge fan of the legendary American football player Walter Payton. I remember that his off-season training consisted mainly of running the steep sand dunes along Lake Michigan. This simple and grueling training protocol + intense work ethic = NFL Hall of Fame.
Great post Ross,
Your blog entries are great, unlike many other trainers, your posts actually contain real world, training and info, not endorsments or product plugs.
I’m just off from todays sprints an hour or so ago. Fortunately here in Scotland (UK) we live on hills so I’m out my door, onto a golf course and mixin cross country and runs.
A nice little session I do is 10 x 90sec reps, I find a short hill sprint that lasts 16-20secs, when I reach the top I do 20/failure pushups and get back to the start line, all I have to do is get the sprint the pushups and be back at the start line within 90sec, to progress it I either, reduce the time or lengthen the sprint. Simple and effective session that only takes about 20mins, including warm ups. After the sprints it a quick 15min circuit of superset dips & pushups, triset pistols, chins and homemade trx incline rows.
Great for time pressed 40year old fathers of 4!
Ross you hit the nail on the head, im sick of trainers who have to complicate everything they do. Sometimes the simple things are the best and theres nothing better than a run through hills.
Ive posted a spiel on a hill run i do, in honour of ANZACS, here in Western Australia at westernkettlebells.com. As with your photo i dont think the photos do justice to the steepness of the hill
20 + years ago on my HS x country team we ran wicked steep hill intervals. I have never forgotten them to this day!
I love the hills. They are brutal and can be done in very short intervals. One workout I use that is quite effective but a bit more intricate…4-5 burpees all out and then sprint into a medium sized hill full bore. It is fairly simple and intense. Only takes a few reps. Just something to throw into an already challenging workout. Nothing beats simplicity.
Yea the simpler the better. I was thinking about buying more equipment (barbells etc…) for my house a while back. After thinking it through though I don’t wanna make my training anymore complex than it has to be. I get by fine with my dirt roads and hills to run on, homeade rings, body weight, two 40lb dumbells, a few cinder blocks, a heavy bag, and a 4 ft. long 1 inch pipe. I have made so many ass kicking workouts with these few tools. I’m afraid if I bought more stuff I’d get to caught up in trying to incorporate it all during the week, that it’d mess up my rhythm of training. Anyhow great post!
Great post. Many don’t remember that a hill and a tire-around-the-waist was one of Walter Payton’s best exercises. No wonder he was able to leap that high getting into the endzone. KISS is an often heard acronym in the sales world but starting to make tracks again in the fitness one again. Isn’t the latest craze with the advent of “the Biggest Loser” on NBC about functional training and keeping it simple. Nice to know trainers like yourself still believe what my Jr High Football Coach love to tell us…”Go take a Hill!” imho, best running/strength training in the world. FTW!
No hills, AND no beach here… just a flat city and flat grasslands without dirt roads. I think I better buy me some bags of sand 🙂
Agreed, my regular Friday session involved running about 2 miles to a flight of stairs that went about 300 metres up the side of a mountain, sprinting up them twice, and then running back home. It was one of the simplest and shortest sessions I did, but was always the most difficult. Hill and stair sprints will always give you a great workout.
Good post – always inspirational.
Great post, Ross! Elegence in simplicity, baby!
Fabulous post and feedback, the focus on simplicity is so reassuring and refreshing. I’m an experienced Trainer myself and as such get “sucked into” a lot of the industry hype that unfortunately prevails…when I do my own workouts I deliberately make them as fundamental and straightforward as possible. Hill sprints do the job every time, regardles of anyone’s condition. I’m fortunate enough to live on the coast and also incorporate running along the pebbled beaches (Brighton, England)…the pebbles vary in size from about 5mm to 30mm diameter and are “loosely packed” so every step forward requires an extra effort to maintain a decent speed, add to this a weighted vest , some facing wind….and you’ve got yourself another simple yet effective session. (sturdy footwear essential though!)….keep up the excellent work Ross.
Excellent feed back and information. I am a trainer of over 20 years and my 19 y.o. client (of 3 years) is starting to box. At first I thought it was going to be super complicated, but just like my current training method, simplicity is key. It’s good to know. Thanks for the support.
The hills in Rockville are something else. We’re fortunate: we have a lot of hills like that around here. If you want some fun, run up Valley Falls Rd, cross Bolton Rd and then go up Hatch Hill.
Yes ^, I know that area very well. Very nice run.
Great post, Ross, and feedback, all. Fortunately, we have some hills here in St. Francisville, LA, and I run them at least once a week. My favorite routine is to jog/hike the local 5+ mile long mountain bike trail through the woods (aptly named The Beast) while wearing my 20# vest. I sprint up all the hills, with the last being the worst of all! I do this at least once a week. I also wear the vest while using the local HS stadium – 50 steps X 5 trips/round, with pushups at the bottom of each trip, 4/5 rounds, followed by 4 rounds of sprinting the straights and walking the curves of the track. Brutal! 50 years old and going strong!
Stairs are all over the place and make for an incredible workout. When I feel the need to be particularly humbeled,
I jog over to the flight of stairs to the walking path near the house. There are just over 40 steps going up with a variety of lengths. At the top I turn around and do the pushups in the middle on one of the long steps on the way down. I move sticks or pebbles between piles to keep count. Simple and cheap.
Best workout to date was 40 times up the stairs with 40 pushups rest each down cycle. I like the symbolism there
as I am over 40 myself. There is a bit of personal satisfaction that comes when somebody glances at me on their way by and then notice me there when they come back by 30 minutes or more later. Then they ask have you been doing this the whole time with amazement.
I love the stairs! And many thanks Ross! This website has reaffirmed my training habits. And given me new ideas to try.
I agree with Steve, stairs are a good alternative if you don’t have access to hills.
Good article. I agree on the simplicity and brutality of hill sprints. But I don’t totally discount the medicine ball thing (although that other guy obviously overcomplicated it). We do it with tires. Throw the tire up the hill run to it, throw it again, repeat to the top. It involves the total body. Frankly it’s just different than hill sprints and just as valuable. The hill sprints are great for the legs but not the upper body. Tire tossing up the hill is great for cardio and upper body and only average for the legs. I say, embrace both in the the right mix.
Over the years my dad & I always have been amazed that we never see anyone else running the many hills in the many places we have trained.
It’s a rare few that want it badly! If becoming a champ was easy everyone would be a class athlete or have the ‘look’.
Great article, I live in the hills of southern New Hampshire and my driveway is 500 feet long and very steep. I have killer workouts there on a regular basis. Thanks for all the fantastic training information and for your overall philosophy of training and life in general.
You need to go out and actually train. Hills aren’t brutal, you are.
As I get older and older, I realize how important it is to keep things simple. I have to stick to those things that do me the most good while doing me the least bad. For me, that’s hill sprints, PC&PP and goblet squats. It was actually a great relief to give up trying to be the athlete I never was.
Yes man back to basics. It doesn’t come any simpler than sprinting. When battling the iron – it’s the simple lifts are the most effective – squats, deadlifts, presses and pulls.
No need to reinvent the wheel.
I’ve always enjoyed running, particularly long slow endorphin inducing jogs of 6-8 miles. However, I know that variety is the key whether resistance training or in cardiovascular training, so I mix up my runs and hill sprints are included. Nothing gets that heart beating like hill sprints and quite often you’ll only experience the endorphins after the puke bucket with hill sprints. Hill sprints/runs have been a key part of many outstanding athletes training programs from Walter Payton & Herschel Walker to Rocky Marciano. It was said Marciano would sprint up a hill near his home in Brockton, Mass., and then jog backwards back down, and then repeat this over and over. Those brutal hill workouts no doubt helped create Marciano’s almost inhuman stamina. Matter of fact I believe no calisthenic or weight training equal hill sprints for conditioning and strengthening the lower body. The strength and conditioning you aquire from sprinting hills I feel will be more functional for everyday life and sports than say hi-rep weighted squats or bodyweight squats.
I might like to add to even make hill sprints more hardcore if you’re lucky enough to live near some sand dunes strap on the combat boots and do it. I know combat boots and/or heavy work boots are definitely not recommended for hard services, but since you’re on soft sand it shouldn’t hurt your knees, ankles, or shins. I feel no one should need a weighted vest for hill sprints. If you’re sprinting hard enough you won’t be able to physcially handle anything heavier than maybe heavy boots especially in thick soft sand. A weighted vest would just turn your sprints into hybrid sprint/runs unless you were a large S on your shirt.