I have a love/hate relationship with running hills.
I hate them. They are hard. But I also love trail running (or more specifically, the views you only can see on your own two feet on the trail).
Around me in the bay area, trail running almost always means hills.
Sure, there are a few ‘trails’ along the coast that are paper flat, but they are (in my ever so humble opinion) super boring. More common are half marathons that climb several thousand feet.
One (in)famous trail half marathon near me climbs just under 4000′ in just over 13.1 miles.
Why Run Hills?
Love them or hate them, all runners should occasionally hit the hills.
What a ‘hill’ is for you will vary. In some areas, a parking ramp is as hilly as you’ll ever get. In my neighborhood, I can climb several hundred feet in a few miles.
Whatever your hill is, do them.
Strength Work in Disguise
Running hills builds muscles in your calves, quads and butt. It’s a great strength and resistance workout, especially for those of us that can sometimes struggle to do the dedicated strength work we know we should do.
It even gets your core and upper body involved when you incorporate a powerful arm swing.
Become a More Well-Round Runner
After a flat marathon, I’m sore for days.
After a trail marathon (often with climbs of 6000+ feet), I’m rarely sore the next day.
At first, this baffled me. Then I realized that on a (flat) road marathon, I used the same muscles over and over for hours. On the trail, I used a little bit of everything.
In the hills, your body is using different muscles and moving in different planes and levels of incline.
This variety can decrease your chance of injury, decrease muscle soreness, and make you a more well-rounded runner.
Up Your Mental Game
Hills are hard.
It can be hard to keep going.
While hills are rarely easy (at least for me), the more you do them, the less scary they are.
And if you are training for a race with a ‘killer hill’ everyone talks about (Big Sur Marathon, I’m looking at you), being used to hills will make you much calmer as race day approaches.
Up Your Intensity
Going uphill, your legs, lungs and heart will all have to work harder.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time running fast enough on the flats to get my workout intensity up to my upper limits.
On the hills, even a moderate uphill, run at a moderate pace, can result in a seriously intense workout.
When Starting in the Hills
Start small in two ways:
- Build hills into your workout plan slowly. At most, once a week. Build up slowly from there.
- Start with smaller hills
Your body needs time to adapt to the hills. Like everything else in running, too much too fast can result in injury. Shin splints are especially common for runners who hit the hills too often too soon.
Hills can be deceptive. Since the pace you’ll be running in the hills might be super slow, you may not feel like you ‘deserve’ rest.
Do it anyway.
Treat a hill workout day like you would a tough speed workout day.
Give your body lots of stretching and TLC, and make the next day a rest or active recovery day.
Proper technique for running hills is a huge topic. A few pointers to start:
On All Hills (Up and Down)
Walk as much as you need to, but don’t make that walk a leisurely stroll.
When you walk the hills, make it a get-your-arms-into-it uphill power hike.
During hilly races, without fail, I pass the most people on the uphills, when they are ‘running’ and I’m doing my uphill power walk.
Look ahead, about 6-8 feet ahead of you. Keep your eyes on where you are going, not down at your feet.
This can take some getting used to, but looking forward keeps your head, core, and legs in better alignment
Running uphill is the more obvious challenge when running.
Effort, Not Pace
You will (and should) slow down on an uphill. Focus on your effort when running uphill.
Ignore your pace. Walk as often as you need to.
Trying to maintain a consistent pace on an uphill serves no purpose but your ego.
Use Your Arms
Uphill running is all about a powerful arm swing.
Work your upper body. Your arms will help propel you forward.
Shorten Your Stride
Don’t take huge steps up the hill.
Shorten your stride and take more steps than you think you need.
Your uphill power should come from your butt – drive your legs behind you as you move up the hill.
Lean In (but not too much)
The uphill lean is an often misunderstood part of running uphill. You want to lean forward, but not too much (helpful, right?).
How far you lean depends on how steep the hill – the steeper the hill, the more the lean.
But lean from the hips, not your shoulders. It is a full-body pivot forward, not a shoulder-slump forward.
A strong core is your friend in making this happen.
Running downhill seems like it should be so easy.
It might be easier on the lungs, but it is hard on the quads and the knees, especially if you get sloppy with your form.
Keep Speed Under Control
Gravity is on your side on the downhill, so you’ll likely speed up a bit, but keep it under control.
If you are on a more technical trail, the risk of tripping or falling on the downhill is very real, but keep your gaze ahead of your feet, not at your feet (again, this will feel odd at first and takes some practice).
Keep Your Feet Under You
Like on the uphills, keep your strides short. Take two steps when you think you may only need one. Take three steps when you think you only need two.
Smaller steps will keep your joints happier.
Keep your feet under your body, not too far in front of you.
Don’t lean too far back. Relax into the downhill.
Confession time – I very rarely do specific or detailed hill workouts. On hill days, I usually just pick a hilly route and run it.
I won’t lay out dozens of detailed hill workouts here (they are a google away if you want them), but I think of hill workouts as one of three basic varieties:
Short and (not-so) Sweet
Find a hill (ideally 100-200 yards long, but use what you have).
After warming up, run up the hill as fast as you can.
Jog down slowly, recover and catch your breath.
Repeat several times.
Long and Gradual
Find a hilly course or a longer, more gradual hill.
After warming up, run the gradual hill, focusing on keeping your effort consistent to the effort you were running in the flats.
A longer, more gradual hill workout is good for the mental side of hill running, since the effort comes at you more gradually.
It’s Downhill From Here
This is the ‘short and (not-so) sweet’ but in reverse.
Find a hill.
Warmup and then walk or jog uphill.
Focus all your energy on the downhill, considering your form, stride, and control.
Repeat several times.
See you in the hills!