You don’t need to tell a runner that it’s basic physics that running up a hill will feel harder than running on flat ground. Hills are the reason why races such as the Boston Marathon are notoriously tough. Despite the intrinsic challenge of running hills, you don’t have to resign yourself to being slow on the hills. Uphill running is a combination of skill and fitness – both of which you can improve.
Physiology of Uphill Running
General running fitness is not the sole predictor of uphill running performance. You can have two runners of roughly equal fitness, but one can climb with ease while the other struggles on hills. Why is this?
Uphill running is determined by both cardiovascular and muscular fitness. As outlined in a 2021 study in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, velocity at VO2max (the pace you run at your maximum oxygen consumption) and lower limb muscle strength (particularly the extensor muscles) correlated with uphill running performance.
Uphill running is lower impact than level ground or downhill running. However, the mechanical work of uphill running is greater than downhill or flat ground running. The increased mechanical work occurs because you have to work harder against gravity to propel yourself forward and uphill simultaneously.
According to a 2016 review in Sports Medicine, biomechanics differ slightly during uphill running. Cadence increases when running uphill. The swing phase of the gait shortens, your foot is on the ground longer during the stride, and you spend less time in the area compared to level and downhill running. Because of these biomechanical changes, power output is increased, particularly in the hips.
Since the biomechanics and physiological demands of uphill running are slightly different, some runners will excel more at running uphill. If you want to improve your ability to run hills, you need to work on these areas: your power output, running form, and muscular strength.
Fine Tune on Your Form
Poor running form deteriorates your running economy – which means that you will be less efficient and expend more energy running uphill. By maintaining good form, both uphill and downhill running will feel more comfortable and your paces will improve.
When running uphill or downhill, focus on having a slight forward lean. It may seem counterintuitive, but it helps you efficient run on hills.
When running uphill, maintain an upright posture with a slight forward lean. Don’t slouch into the hill or let your shoulders creep up towards your ears. Keep your shoulders down and relaxed and look up a few feet ahead of you instead of down at your feet. Take short, quick, powerful steps with your feet landing beneath you and swing your arms strongly by your side.
On the downhill, avoid the common error of breaking too much. Don’t lean back – you’re not going to fall over. Gently lean into the downhill and take short, quick steps. Be mindful not to reach your feet too far out in front of you, as overstriding will apply a braking force and reduce your efficiency.
If you struggle with proper running form, devote some time to running drills. Add 6-10 hill sprints lasting 8-15 seconds, with 1-2 minute rest in between, after your runs to improve your uphill form. These exercises may not seem like much, but they will help you significantly in improving your form – and therefore improving your hill running.
Let Your Heart Rate Drift When Running Uphills
This approach is a bit controversial. Some coaches will argue that you should keep heart rate low, even if that means walking the uphills. (For more on heart rate training, reference this article.)
However, if your goal is to become better at running uphill, you need to practice exactly that – running uphill, not walking uphill. You do not want to attack every uphill. Running up them at an easy effort will help you become more efficient and stronger on the uphills with time.
Your effort should not spike significantly on hills (unless you are doing a specific hill workout as outlined below). Your heart rate will increase even as your effort stays the same going uphill. Focus on staying comfortable on the uphill and running with good form – no matter what your heart rate does. Once you crest the hill, use the flat or downhill to let your heart rate come back down.
If you frequently run very hill routes, account for the heart rate drift in your training intensity distribution. For example, instead of doing two hard workouts in one week, I will coach athletes for one hard workout (intervals or tempo), one long run, one hilly run, and strides (plus easy runs).
Build Hill-Specific Power with Hill Workouts
The rule of specificity applies here. You wouldn’t run a marathon without training for long-distance running, and the same applies to hills. If you want to become a stronger hill runner, you need to train on hills. You don’t need to run hills every single day – rather, you want to be deliberate about your hill training, just as you would in any other area of running.
There are multiple types of hill workouts you can do. If you avoid running hills, begin with just a normal easy effort run on a hill route. Once you feel comfortable with easy runs on hills, begin to other hilly workouts into your training.
When starting with hill workouts, begin with manageable workouts on hilly but not drastically challenging terrain. A majority of your workouts – including hill workouts – should be gentle pushes, not huge challenges. Start with 20-30 seconds uphill at a fast yet smooth effort, with 1-2 minutes of easy running in between. Then progress the duration of the uphill intervals as you find yourself getting stronger and more efficient on the hills.
Aim for a hill repeat workout at least once every other week. Hill workouts count as a quality workout, so run them in place of a tempo or interval run, not in addition to.
For more hill workouts:
Don’t Just Run Hills
Too much specificity, however, can become too much of a good thing. If you overemphasize one aspect of fitness all the time, you sacrifice your overall running fitness. As counterintuitive as it sounds, too much hill training at the sacrifice of other aspects off fitness will slow you down. Why?
As David Roche explained in The Happy Runner, “speed still is one of the most important factors in how quickly you climb except at the steepest grades where you can no longer run.” In order to run uphill fast, you have to be able to run fast – or at least, efficiently.
A 2018 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that running economy on flat correlates to running economy on the uphills. Generally speaking, that velocity on flat ground can translate to velocity on the uphills (if you train on hills as well). Even just some simple strides or surges, done once or twice per week, will maintain and running economy.
Short interval workouts and tempo runs develop other areas of fitness for speed and stamina on hills. Long runs will build your endurance. It is vital to develop yourself as a well-rounded runner, not just a hill runner.
Build Total Body Strength
Strong glutes and legs will power your body up a hill. Since you are fighting both gravitational and rotational forces, you need strong core will stabilize you. A strong upper body will assist in your arm swing and running form. The best exercises to prepare your body for hill running are the basic, functional movements: squats, push-ups, deadlifts, functional core exercises, and rows.
Eccentric and plyometric exercises both increase force production. The more force you generate, the faster you can run up hills at the same level of energy expenditure. Plyometrics and eccentric exercises are effective in small, consistent doses. They will only be a small percentage of your total strength training volume, but they will aid in becoming a stronger hill runner.
Build Your Confidence Through Experience
Most likely, you are a better hill runner than you give yourself credit for. Do that challenging hill workout. Sign up for a hilly race or map out your next run on some hills that intimidate you and just go for it. Yes, the chance always exists that you may have a bad race, but when you do have a strong run on the hills, you will view yourself as a stronger hill runner and be able to draw from that experience in future runs.
If you struggle mentally with hills, focus on your mindset during hill runs. Use positive self-talk as you run up the hill and shift your thoughts away from how hard it is. You may find it useful to have a short, affirmative phrase for running up hills, such as “I am strong.”
Finally, remember that uphill running is a skill. You may not smoothly ascend steep or long hills at first. But with appropriate training and practice, you will become a stronger hill runner.