Hill Sprinting, The Lost Fat Burning Secret


People tend to make exercise, particularly fat loss, so much more complicated than it needs to be.  My goal is always to make the most efficient use of my time and energy.  If I can get results in 30 minutes I don’t want to workout for an hour.  I would rather spend that time playing with my daughter. And, If one exercise works for the job why use three?  The goal of my workout is to get results, not entertain me.  Less is more. The most common questions I get revolve around the best workouts or exercises for fat loss. In these situations I always start by saying that the simplest methods are the most effective.  I would rather you focus all of your energy on executing a basic workout plan perfectly than waste it on a confusing complex plan resulting in poor execution.  This is both a statement of my philosophy and a preface to help brace the person I am talking to for the sometimes ridiculously simple advice to follow.

I would rather you focus all of your energy on executing a basic workout plan perfectly than waste it on a confusing complex plan resulting in poor execution.

It is interesting how people are often disappointed with simple advice.   It is like being disappointed with easy equations to solve on a Calculus test.  People expect a complex answer from me and are disappointed when I suggest that the best thing they could do to burn fat is neither a workout nor an exercise, but an activity that is as simple as running…very fast.

That’s right, sprinting intervals, are in my opinion, one of the single best ways to burn fat. It is also a fantastic way to build core and lower body strength, conditioning, and even hypertrophy in the lower body.  Add a hill to the equation and now I can’t think of a better way to accomplish those goals.

Why hill sprinting?

  1. Hill sprinting is both high intensity anaerobic interval training (HIIT) and explosive plyometric style training for the lower body.  With the addition of the hill your legs are getting an extremely tough resistance workout.  The combination of intense anaerobic resistance intervals and explosive plyometrics is the magic formula for fat loss.  Hill sprinting is by nature interval training because once you have sprinted up the hill you have to get back down. Just walking down is a good start.  The sprinting up is plenty hard enough to constitute a full workout for even the most advanced trainees.  There are also a lot of other ways to get down the hill that can add to your workout.  You can walk backwards with an elongated step back to work the calves and glutes or side step to stretch the groin and bring in an element of lateral movement.  Downhill primal movement patterns like quadruped walk or bear crawls make for a particularly brutal interval workout. Tip: Don’t get too caught up in difficult intervals going down the hill in the beginning.  You want to be fresh for each sprint up the hill so that it is actually an all-out sprint instead of a survival shuffle up the hill.
  2. It teaches proper sprinting mechanics because it forces you to exaggerate your running technique.  The pitch of the hill forces you to lean forward, which is an ideal body position for sprinting.  It also forces you to flex your hips, knees and ankles into greater ranges of motion while keeping a braced core.  When done with consistency these movement patterns will carry over to running on flat surfaces and to other explosive movements like jumping.
  3. Sprinting in general is an excellent core workout. The primary function of the core is to stabilize the spine by preventing movement.  The hard arm swing and movement of the legs during sprinting creates opposing rotational forces on the thoracic (upper) and lumbar (lower) spine.  The abs are responsible for balancing the power generated by the arms and legs to maintain a safe, stable spine and efficient sprint mechanics.
  4. Hill running is low impact compared to running on a flat surface because the hill comes up to meet the descending foot so the landing is lower impact.  Lower impact workouts allow you to train harder and longer without beating up your body.  Yay, more work capacity!
  5. Hill running promotes toe running.  Too much time jogging in traditional running shoes teaches a heel strike that is jarring to the knees, hips and lower back.  Learning a new foot strike can be tough.  Hill sprinting is a great and forgiving teaching tool for the reasons listed above.

Now you are ready to go out and conquer.  Look for a hill with an even surface and closely mowed grass.  During your warm-up I suggest passing over your sprinting lane to make sure it is free of obstacles and pot holes.  In the past when I couldn’t find a nice grass hill, paved inclines like the ones found in parking garages and graded ramps were a good substitute. Pick an area with a traffic situation that is safe for sprinting.

Walk off 40 paces to a maximum of 75 paces for your sprint distance.  Anything more than 75 paces and you are long past being able to accelerate through your sprint.  Form will begin to break down and things will get ugly including the look on your face.  As a coach I would prefer that you run more sets of intense, near-max effort sprints that are shorter in distance.  The intensity of the sprint interval is the secret sauce that creates the fat burn, not the length of the interval.  I suggest you heed my less is more philosophy the first few times you try this workout.

The intensity of the sprint interval is the secret sauce that creates the fat burn, not the length of the interval.

Once you have a place to sprint I would suggest shooting for 5-10 sprints up the hill with a long enough break between sprints to allow you to sprint with a close to max effort on the next rep.  If you have a HR monitor I would suggest waiting until your HR has gotten back down into the 120’s.  Over time you can add sprints, increase length and decrease the rest interval.  Adjust these variables one at a time and slowly over time.

I do not recommend running on an incline treadmill or stadium steps as a replacement for a hill.  Treadmills in general are not good options because they promote poor running mechanics and increase the risk of injury when training.  Stadium steps or stair workouts have their place, but are nowhere near as effective as hill sprinting.  You can never really cut loose sprinting super hard on stairs because you have to be aware of foot placement and the fact that the stair width may not fit your natural stride length.  If stairs are all you have then do your best.

6 Sprinting Tips:

  1. Arms are your accelerators.  If you want to sprint faster pump your arms faster.
  2. Stay relaxed.  Don’t tense your face, neck, chest, abs or clench your fists.  Check out a video Olympic sprinters to see how relaxed their faces are during the race.
  3. Keep your arms swinging relatively straight ahead parallel to the line on which you are running.  Arms crossing in front of your body when you run is a very inefficient style of running.  A good rule of thumb is to make sure your hands swing in line with your shoulder joint.
  4. Pick your knees up.
  5. Lead with your chest.  Image some force like a magnet is pulling your chest to the end destination of your sprint.
  6. Don’t tighten your abs when you sprint because it limits the natural rotation needed to maximize your stride length.