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Hill Sprints For Distance Runners

Sprint training for long distance runners


Sprints are a valuable supplement to a distance runner’s training regime, and for many elite distance running groups (especially in East Africa) they have become a staple part of training throughout the season. Sprint (pure speed) work is unique in that it offers long-term physiological benefits for distance events without the stress and sacrifice of other workouts. We’re going to be looking at the key benefits of adding sprint work (hill sprints in particular) to your training and then discussing a few easy ways to implement them. 

Many distance athletes are wary of introducing sprint work into their training, as one assumes that it only offers practical benefits to sprinters as the link to distance running isn’t entirely obvious.  However, the addition of sprint training creates physiological adaptations that are not achieved through other types of training (intervals, hills, tempos, etc.).  These adaptations directly and indirectly help a runner become more mechanically efficient and strong over long distances.

A key aspect of sprint training is that it doesn’t interfere with your general aerobic training but rather provides a great ‘support’ for this without being time consuming. Only a small amount of fatigue is induced so it is a type of stimulus that can added in at the end of an easy/recovery day without hassle.

These are some of the primary benefits that one can expect with the implementation of pure speed work into endurance training:

Increased muscle recruitment and enhanced neural circuitry

Sprinting enhances the physiological connection between the brain and our muscles fibers, specifically our fast-twitch fibers which aren’t easily recruited (the ability of the brain to activate muscle fibers) during long-distance races. Sprinting can therefore be seen as being the physiological key to accessing the storage of additional fibers which contain stored energy. Having this key is largely beneficial as it increases our muscle fiber ‘pool’ – the amount of fibers that can actively carry out work while we run. A larger fiber pool is important in resisting fatigue by distributing workload among each other.

Sprinting also enhances our neural signaling, sending precise signals at optimal times to enable opposing muscles to coordinate their tension and relaxation. Signals can also be sent faster along a neuron which improves neuromuscular efficiency.

Improvements in running form and mechanics
Sprinting and hill sprinting in particular encourages an athlete to achieve good hip extension and foot-placement position along with a strong arm drive and posture. This technique simulates the fundamental aspects of good running form and ideally can be translated into improved running form over longer distances with practice. Sprinting refines form by creating a task which thrives on the most efficient and productive mechanics, helping eliminate weaknesses. Elite sprinters are able to run fast while maintaining a smooth and relaxed strides as they achieve a fluidity in their technique – a trait that should be desired for a runner of any distance.

Enhanced muscle/tendon elasticity (improved passive running mechanics)
The gradient and force requirement of hill sprints puts the body in a mechanical position which utilizes passive mechanics very effectively.  Developing spring-like tissue at a sprinting level carries over to longer and slower distances. The most obvious component trained would be fast-foot reactivity (minimizing contact time with the ground) due to achilles and calf rebounding the force exerted by the ground.

There are numerous ways to implement sprint training. A coach/athlete can manipulate the session to get exactly what’s needed, especially when it comes to the finer details that are specific to an athlete’s needs. However, here are some key points to hopefully provide a framework with which to work from:

Get the gradient right
Steep slope = strength orientated

Gradual slope = speed orientated

Hard surface
Road or hard gravel as you want the legs’ elasticity to absorb the force you apply to the ground (rather than be absorbed by the surface). 

Year-round progression
At any stage in training, you want to either be building your pure speed or maintaining it (this applies for all aspects of training in fact).  Early season is the ideal time to focus more on these sessions and build it, so that when training becomes more race specific you’re able to do just enough to maintain what you’ve built.

Implementing a session:

  • Focus is on maximal effort and high quality work for each rep
  • Low volume – a session should have at least 4 quality sprints with a maximum of around 10
  • Short sprints; 5-10sec range ideally. This ensures your body doesn’t get to the stage where lactate is produced. 
  • Long rest – the instinct for many distance runners is to keep the rests short. There is zero benefit to this for sprint speed development, the purpose is to recover fully and maintain maximal intensity.  Take at least 2mins between sprints and more if needed. 
  • Example: warm-up include some dynamic drills, followed by 2-4 strides (some like to add bounding). Gradually build strides up to sprint pace. eg. 4 x 70%, 80%, 85%, 85% of max effort strides. Perform session eg. 4x60m uphill sprints with running start (we’re not focusing on acceleration but rather max force). Follow sprints with strides which gradually ease body out of intensity, 2x strides of 75%, 70%, and end off with light jog (provided you’re not planning an easy run afterwards).
  • Recommended execution: for your well-trained athlete perform sprint session once-twice a week on easy days following an easy run. eg. 6-12km easy, with 5min post run rest + sipping sweet drink (optional) and then into a session (it can take <10min sometimes). For beginner athletes, consider doing session before an easy run following a warm-up which includes some continuous running. Otherwise perform after a short easy run to ensure athlete isn’t fatigued before sprints.


4x40m HS
6x40m HS
4x40m HS + 2x60m HS
3x50m HS, 2×50 flat
4×50 HS, 2x50m flat, 2x80m flat…..

This could be an example of a general progression an athlete can work on in the non-specific training periods of the year. An athlete won’t progress sessions to anything extraordinary with regards to volume, load, and duration of sessions and reps. So the logistics and goals of this training always remains very similar. For a middle-distance athlete we use ‘pure speed’ sprint sessions to build into a component like high-end speed endurance, rather than training them separately. Other variables to consider:

  • Beginner athletes would likely have to condition their bodies by beginning with strides on grass which can progress into sprints. 
  • Progression could include manipulating gradient; starting with a strength-based steep incline that progresses to a more gradual incline (which would be more speed-based).  


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