Hill running vs. fartlek – which is better for time-poor triathletes?

When time’s not on your side, we look at the benefits of each to help you decide


I only have limited time to train and something has to give! When it comes to running, I sometimes have to choose between doing a hill session or a speed/fartlek session each week rather than both. What are the benefits of each and is one better than the other?



In my opinion, if you have to opt for one or the other, there’s only one choice and that’s to head for the hills (writes Nik Cook). My simple rationale is that hills can deliver speed, but flat speed work can’t deliver the strength and grit needed for when the gradient kicks up.

>>> Five ways to get better at hilly runs

I’ve referred to this quote before but, as it comes from one of the most legendary and respected running coaches of all time, Frank Shorter, it’s worth repeating: “Hills are speed work in disguise.”

There’s no hiding on a hill. On the flat it’s too easy to switch off and drop your pace without realising it until your HRM bleeps at you. This just can’t happen when you’re battling gravity – ease off and progress instantly stalls. Even if you feel you’re moving slowly and your stride is woefully short, the higher knee lift, arm drive and body position that the slope demands will all translate into speed on the flat.

With a selection of hills of varying lengths and gradients, you can target almost any aspect of running fitness. Short and steep for power, strength and neuromuscular work, to longer and more gradual for threshold efforts.You can even use downhills for fantastic over-speed work.

I’d always recommend trying to find off-road options for hill work and, for long-course racers, the strength and mental toughness that long hilly trail runs deliver makes them a must to schedule into your training every few weeks.

Finally, think of race day. If there’s a hill on the run course, you can almost guarantee that’s where the race will be won or lost, or where you can make up chunks of time and places on your rivals. With hill reps in your legs, you’ll have an edge that’ll leave runners who stuck to the flat trailing in your wake.

Speed work

If time is your enemy, then a well-constructed speed session can bring you to your knees in just a few minutes (says Paul Larkins). As I coach, I can often reduce athletes to tears in no time at all – run 400m, take 15secs rest then run 100m all out; repeat four times; they’ll be crying!

>>> The lowdown on fartlek

The demands of triathletes are, of course, endurance-based, but a longer workout of say 4x2mins, with just 30 seconds rest can be far more beneficial than perhaps five or six miles of easy running. Think intensity+speed–recovery and you’ll have a great formula to work to.

High-pace efforts, much faster than race pace, on a level, smooth surface with no more than 30 seconds between each one, will be a great way to improve endurance, form and mental toughness. You cannot run fast 400m reps with just 15 seconds recovery if your mindset isn’t right and if you are all over the place in terms of form.

It’s worth noting that short, intense workouts come with an element of injury risk, so make sure you warm up well, do a few drills to get your body moving correctly and allow loads of recovery days after – three minutes of high-intensity, short-distance speed may not seem like much, but it will take a day or two to recover from.

Of course, you will need an endurance element as well, which is where fartlek [periods of fast running intermixed with periods of slower running] comes into play. Hills and speed are fairly formulated, but every now and then it’s great to just go with the flow – run hard when you want to, run easy as you wish.

Fartlek is great for that, either on your bike or out running. Fartlek is also a great way of learning how to race, how to deal with competitors surging mid-race and dealing with hills…


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