For 14 years (1985-1999) the Houston Astros trained on a hill that had been constructed in the home weight room in the Astrodome. The hill had a 150 incline, was 20 yards long x 5 yards wide and ended with a 5-yard level straightaway at the top. The running surface was made of wood and covered with a rubber pad and Astroturf. The incline was significantly greater than the currently recommend range, but was the minimal incline possible given the physical dimensions of the room.
Players used it for speed and conditioning during the off-season and to warm-up during the season. Off-season workouts started with 8-10 warm-up trips to the top. Players would walk, lunge, skip, shuffle, carioca, backpedal, jog, stride and sprint up the hill prior to speed and resistance training workouts. They
ran up and walked down to prevent the braking action produced by landing on the heel and minimize eccentric stress and impact loading on the ankles, knees, hips and low back. To increase training density and help improve work capacity and leg drive, players would occasionally sprint up the hill between strength training exercises and/or exercise circuits.
During the season, some starters would warm-up on the hill before home games and extra men would run it between the 4th and 7th innings to get ready to pinch hit, pinch run or prepare for a double switch. Hill running was very popular in a number of sports during the 80s and 90s. Earl Campbell and Jerry Rice ran hills in the off-season to prepare for the rigors of the NFL season. Earl ran the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Houston and Rice ran sand hills in San Diego. Nolan Ryan ran hills 2-3 times per week during the off-season and twice per week between starts during the season to improve lower body strength, power and work capacity.
If you are considering adding hill running to your training routine, find a hill or ramp in your neighborhood with a 5-100 incline and give it a try. Regardless of whether you are training for speed and power or work capacity, run up and walk down slowly. Don’t run down the hill. Running down the hill can cause you to over stride and create a breaking effect that can put undue pressure on your ankles, knees, hips and low back and increase the risk of injury. Let your body mirror the terrain. Lean from the feet, not the hips keeping a straight line from your head through your hips and to your ankles. Drive up the hill using short, fast steps landing on your forefoot, not your heel, and land with your foot under your center of mass. Keep your eyes focused on the top of the hill and emphasize cresting the hill, not just making it to the top by taking 3-4 quick steps at the top and then accelerating for 5-10 yards to transition back to flat-ground mechanics.
Speed and power. To maximize results and minimize the risk of injury, be sure to warm up properly. A sample warm-up program is presented below. Once warm, gradually increase the speed of each rep until you are working at a high intensity. Go as fast as you can go under control. Focus on quality, not quantity. Doing more reps will increase work capacity, not speed and power. Doing fewer high quality reps will help increase strength, speed and power. Keep your sprints short, no more than 8-10 seconds. Recover at least 60-90 seconds to ensure complete recovery after each rep. Your focus should be on speed, power and running mechanics on each rep and you can’t achieve these if you are tired from the previous rep. Start with one set of 4-6 high intensity sprints. Time each sprint to the crest of the hill and stop when your speed declines by 10% or more. Gradually add more reps or a second set of 4-6 reps.
Warm-up. Regardless of whether you are training for speed and power or work capacity, perform two sets of each of the following warm-up exercises: 1) walk then jog forward up the hill; 2) shuffle up the hill, switch sides and repeat; 3) carioca up the hill, switch sides and repeat; 4) skip up the hill for rhythm then skip for distance; 5) walk then backpedal up the hill; 6) zig-zag up the hill; and 7) finish with two sets of 10-15 yard flying sprints up the hill. Jog the first flying sprint and stride the second.
Work capacity. To improve work capacity, start with two sets of the warm-up exercises presented above. Once warm, perform 3-5 accelerated sprints gradually working up to 75-80% of max. Follow this with 3-5 sprints from a stationary start and finish with 3-5 flying sprints. Walk down and rest 45-60 seconds between sprints. Gradually increase the work load to 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps of each type of sprint. For variety, add a speed ladder and do incline ladder drills to add a challenging twist to your workouts and improve footwork, coordination and lower-body strength and stability.
Do hill work 2-3 times per week. Focus on speed/power in the first and third workouts and work-capacity in the second.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, is a Strength and Conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.