Monday, 25 June 2012

Hill Sprints for Good Looks and Great Performance

This past weekend, I took my lovely wife and our two daughters to a spot on my University's campus to run hill sprints. We had such a great time and a great training session that I thought I would blog about it today. Whether you want to get into great shape to improve your sport/life performance or just look good on the beach this summer, hill sprints are definitely something to consider adding to your training program!
My new favourite spot for hill sprints

Hill sprints have been used for a long time by many "old school" athletes to get in great shape. Back in the 70's and 80's, the late Walter Payton (star running back for the Chicago Bears) made hill sprints famous. Payton was a dominant force on the football field (click here for his amazing bio) and only missed one game in his 13-year career.
Walter in training
Walter enjoying the results of his training

Recently, influential people in the strength training world, such as Jim Wendler, have helped bring awareness and popularity this old school "gem".

Benefits of hill sprints:
Reduced risk of injury:
Running up a hill is both harder on the cardiovascular system and muscles and safer on the joints. It puts your body in a position that reduces the risk of hamstring strains and the impact stress of flat-ground sprinting.
Conditioning:
Both research and real-world evidence have found that intense anaerobic training such as sprints are great for improving conditioning levels. For team-sport athletes, interval based training is also much more sport-specific than long, slow distance running.
Fat Loss:
Hill sprints are great for inducing EPOC. As a result you will burn fat and calories long after you finish your training session. Sprinting is one of the best ways to strip off body fat!
Muscle Gain:
Because hill sprints are short and intense, they will not waste away your muscles like long, slow distance running. They may even help build a little muscle in the process. Note: If muscle gain is your top priority in a training block, you may want to leave hill sprints for that time or do a much smaller amount at more of a maintenance level. Too much of this will hinder your ability to recover and build muscle.

Time-efficiency:
High-intensity sprints demands short training sessions. This is perfect for those who are doing other training (I like slipping in a few sets of hills after strength training), athletes who are busy with their sport or those who are just busy in general and want to maximize training time efficiency.
Fun & Stress Relief:
Like many people, I work indoors and train indoors most of the time. Getting outside is a fun, refreshing change that puts a new spark of enthusiasm into my training. I also find being outside great for decreasing stress levels.

Some Application Notes:
  • If you are weak, injured or deconditioned, you may not be ready for hill sprints yet. Get stronger and build up a base level of conditioning first. If you are coming back from an injury, get your therapist's approval first.
  • Athletes should not rely on hill sprints for speed training. While they may help with acceleration power, the majority of pure speed training needs to happen on flat ground so you can move at a higher speed.
  • Athletes should not use hills sprints for all their conditioning. Team sport athletes need stopping and starting (e.g. think running lines in a gym) for a good portion of their conditioning as this is more sport-specific and important for injury prevention (many injuries happen on the stopping phase).
  • Training outdoors is so wonderful and should definitely be taken advantage of when weather permits. Being outside is great for numerous reasons including getting vitamin D and relieving stress. Just be sure to take precautions against things such as sun burns, dehydration and heat stroke.
  • The hardest thing about hill sprints is finding a good hill. One of the best ways to find one is to keep your eyes open. You may be surprised at what hills are close by that you have passed countless times without realizing their potential.
  • Jim Wendler offers a fantastic tip for finding a hill: Google sledding hills. What is great for sliding down on a sled in the snowy winter can be perfect for sprinting up in the summer.
  • Getting a pair of cleats can be a huge help for improving your performance and safety when hill sprinting.
  • Sprinting while pushing and pulling a sled is a great alternative to hill sprints when the weather is not appropriate.
  • Stadium sprints (sprinting up a big flight of stairs) can also be a good option. However, you have to be careful as you fatigue not to miss a step. Also, the impact stress is greater on hard concrete stairs than on an outdoor grass hill.
  • I cannot give precise recommendations for training variables when it comes to hill sprints as it totally varies depending on the individual and the hill. The length and grade of the hill can drastically change optimal training variables. The best advice I can give is to start slow and have your first session feel "too easy". Then, gradually build up from there. You can progress initially by doing more sets of sprints. You can also progress by decreasing your rest time between sets and trying to beat your previous sprint times up the hill.
A special note for parents:
Training for me is not only a career but a passion. I don't care if my girls share this passion, but I do hope for their sake that they don't grow up to be sedentary adults. I have a lot to learn about parenting, but one thing I do know is that modeling is often more effective than lecturing. My wife and I have chosen to include our children in our physical activity as much as possible. We told our oldest daughter (almost 3 years old) about our plans for sprints ahead of time. She was excited and talked about running sprints the night before and the morning of our training session. During our training session, she decided herself to run with us. While she didn't run as far, she did at least as many sets of sprints as we did. All we did was cheer her on and she loved every minute of it! Our youngest (just 1 year old) was too young to sprint, but enjoyed being with us. My wife and I took turns watching her at the bottom of the hill while other did a sprint. On our last set I put my youngest daughter on my shoulders and carefully sprinted up with her. It was fun to hear her laugh with delight the whole way up. I think next time I'll do a few more sets with her on my shoulders. And, if I do sprints with her on my back every week, by the time she is 18, I'll be a beast!

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