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. These tips will help you become a stronger hill runner – running faster up hills while expending less energy.
Becoming a stronger hill runner is the result of improving various physiological systems. You need to build strength and force production to generate enough power to run fast against the resistance of gravity. Endurance is vital, as is running economy. You want to develop muscle fibers that are resistant to fatigue. So how do you improve all of these and become a stronger hill runner?
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, maintain an upright posture. 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.
Train on Hills
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.
What has helped you run better on hills?
Do you enjoy running hills or struggle with them?
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