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H.I.I.T the Hills like Rocky and Jerry Rice

“Drago! Draaaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggooooo!” Rocky shouted at the top of his lungs from high atop the mountain after sprinting up it. With the culmination of his training regime complete in Rocky IV, he would now be able to pummel Ivan Drago in the ring and avenge the loss of his friend, Apollo Creed. Tissue, please.

Rocky IV Training Montage

All kidding aside there is little wonder Rocky chose to sprint up that mountain; it served as both a metaphor for the fight of his life as well as the culmination of his extreme training in the middle of the Russian Winter. No matter what, the writers of Rocky IV had it right though. Why? Hill training really works!

Want to know one of the best ways to increase your speed, strength and muscular endurance? Pairing high intensity interval training (HIIT) with hill sprints is a recipe that never goes out of style.

A few years after I first saw Rocky sprint up the mountain, I read an article my dad had giving me on NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s hill training program. I was finally sold. If hill sprints were the secret sauce of Rocky and Jerry Rice, then they would be mine as well.

Jerry Rice – The Hill

Why did Rocky and Jerry Rice choose hill sprints?

Efficiency: Hill Sprints shorten the amount of time you need to train, so they are amazing for people with tight schedules. Furthermore, they increase the maximal stroke volume of the heart. Why is stroke volume important? Stroke volume is the amount of blood that can be pumped from the heart in one stroke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and, in a sense, makes the heart more efficient. Rocky only had a few weeks to train and would need to be as efficient as possible to fight Drago.

Technique: The gradient of the running surface naturally forces a forward lean, which causes you to immediately learn correct acceleration mechanics. Your arms and upper body are used in a way that maximises coordination and speed. Coordination. Speed. Hmmmm…pretty important qualities in a ring or on a football field, but they should be just as important to you.

Safety: Inclines help your body to instinctively learn the correct methods to run with less risk of injury. Hill sprinting makes you lift your knees higher off the ground. This high knee drive helps strengthen your hamstring muscles, which allows for a greater force upon lowering your leg to the ground. Your body pushes forward, albeit stronger and faster. Your cadence increases without having to attain your top speed. In turn, you minimize the risk of hamstring pulls; one of the most common occurring injuries from sprinting on a flat surface. Something tells me Jerry Rice’s coaches would be pretty pissed off if he came to training camp with a torn hammy!?

Jerry Rice after conquering one his hill runs.
Jerry Rice after conquering one of his hill runs.

Metabolism Boost: Hill sprinting combines the benefits of aerobic and anaerobic training which leads to a higher metabolic rate. This means that your body will continue to burn calories hours after you are done with your workout. Hill sprints combine the advantages of sprinting and weight lifting which dramaticly improve your body composition as well. Your muscles strengthen faster, resulting in marked gains of speed, strength and muscular endurance not to mention a phenominal physique. I mean, did you see how ripped Rocky was when he stepped into the ring to fight Drago?

Ankle Strength: sprinting up an inclined surface leads to stronger ankles, which increases the stride length and makes you faster. It does so by demanding a lifting of the toe (ankle dorsiflexion) prior to landing, which is associated with power generation and increases in stride length. Jerry Rice’s long stride and tough ankles helped him stay healthy enough to have his long Hall of Fame career.

Endorphin Rush: There is a feel good factor when you reach the top of a hill that does not exist in the gym. This is an ancillary effect of HIIT hill sprints, but one of the most important ones. And just like Rocky and Jerry did, it gives you the feeling of being able to conquer the world (or pummel your nemesis in the ring to avenge your friend’s death and score countless touchdowns and win a bunch of SuperBowls).

"Drago! Draaaaaaaaaagggooooo!" Rocky conquering his mountain run in Rocky IV
“Drago! Draaaaaaaaaagggooooo!” Rocky conquering his mountain run in Rocky IV

The Mechanics of Hill Sprinting

  • Lift the knees high.
  • Foot strike should be under your body and not in front of it, although you could allow for some degree of variation depending on how steep the gradient of the hill is.
  • The mid section of the foot should strike the ground, not the heel.
  • Minimize contact of the foot with the ground. As soon as the foot strikes the ground, pull it behind immediately so that your ankle feels the least impact. Imagine running on hot coals.
  • Bend your arms at ninety degrees, keeping your hands open and wrists firm while pumping your hands forward and backward in front of you, not crisscrossing your body.
  • You should have a slight forward lean into the hill to compensate for the gradient you are running against.

Tips on Hill Sprint Workouts

  • Hill sprints should be done at least once per week in combination with a sound strength and conditioning program.
  • A 10-25 degree gradient is preferable.
  • A length of 40-100yds is best for sprints, but Jerry Rice did a long hill run that was nearly 2.5 miles in length.
  • Avoid pavement and/or cement; rather opt for grass or trails when possible.
  • Make sure to do a light jog for several minutes and warm up drills like hip openers, calf stretches, inch worms, squats, leg swings, lunges etc.
  • You should start with a few low intensity sprints around 40%-60% exertion and gradually bring it up to 90%. Once you reach this point, you’re ready for your hill sprints.
  • Begin with just 5 sprints around a max of 40yds and take a 3-5 minute break for recovery between sprints. This may sound easy at first, but trust me it will serve you well in the long run as your body gets used to the intensity.
  • Feel free to add an additional rep or two and ten yards to the hill sprint with each additional workout; the ultimate goal would be to do 10 sprints at a 95% exertion rate for 8-10 reps for 80-100yds with 3-5 minutes rest. You will be in phenominal shape once you can safely tackle a workout like this.
  • Limit your intensity to 95% rather than attaining a full 100% effort. This marginal difference gives you an amazing workout without resulting in injury or overtraining.

Including hill sprints in your exercise program will show a marked improvement in your speed, coordination, energy levels and your body composition. Hill sprinting will enhance your atheltic performance and set you on target to meet your fitness goals. It’s time to follow in the footsteps of Rocky and Jerry Rice.