Hill Training With No Hills: How to Cope

Training for a Hilly Race in a Flat Area

Specificity is an essential aspect of training for a race. You want to prepare your mind and body for the unique demands of the event, including the distance, terrain, climate, and elevation gain. But specificity can be tricky – such as training for a hilly race when you live in an area without any hills. However, tricky does not mean impossible – it just requires intention and creativity. Whether it’s a hilly half marathon, a destination trail race, or the Boston Marathon, it is possible to train for a hilly race in a flat area – and to actually do well in the race itself. You can achieve this with hill training on the treadmill, plus some other interventions.

Hill running has two components: uphill running and downhill running. The biomechanics of each is different than flat ground running. Uphill running increases stride frequency. This change in your gait requires more power output from your glutes and hip flexors, plus uses more energy to maintain your pace while fighting gravity. Downhill running is a primarily eccentric action, which means more impact on your quads as they lengthen in your stride. You do receive an ergogenic aid from gravity, but this can be quickly negated if you over-stride and fatigue your muscles. 

When training for a hilly race in a flat area, you want to prepare your body for the unique biomechanical demands of uphill and downhill running. Depending on the exact topography of your race, your approach may vary. Training for rolling hills, a mountain race, and a downhill race will all look slightly different – but these same principles apply. 

Do Hill Workouts on the Treadmill

If you have access to a treadmill, it is one of the most effective tools for hill training in a flat area. You can manipulate the inclines on the treadmill to mimic the profile of your race, from short steep climbs to long ascents. Some treadmills even feature a decline setting (typically up to -3%) so that you can mimic the eccentric action of downhill running.

You can use the treadmill to mimic hill repeat workouts. After a 15-20 minute warm-up, set the incline to 4-6% and run for 1-2 minutes hard. In between each hard interval, drop the incline down to 0% (or a decline if your treadmill permits) and jog for the equal amount of time you did for the hill repeat. Do this for a total of 10-15 minutes of hill repeats.

Long, steep climbs will allow you to focus on your form and develop leg strength. They will also boost your confidence on hills, so that you don’t get into our own head during the race. Start with 5-minute intervals at 6-8%, and then build up to 20-30 minutes continuous at 8-12% incline. You can also try one of these treadmill incline workouts

How to Do Hill Strides on the Treadmill

Hill strides are commonly used to prepare for a hilly race. If you are preparing for a race with hill training on the treadmill, you can include hill strides in your plan. All you need is a treadmill with an incline function – and enough clearance above your head.

How to do hill strides on the treadmill:

  • Run easy for at least 15-20 minutes (you can even do the majority of your run). It is important not to do the hill strides cold – you need at least 15 minutes of running to fully warm up first.
  • Set the treadmill incline to 6-8%. Once the incline is stabilized, increase the pace to an effort that feels fast – like 90% max. (This will be slower than if you were to do flat strides.) You may end up only increasing the pace by 1.0-1.5 mph from your easy pace, since the incline will make it much harder.
  • Run the hill stride for 20-30 seconds.
  • After each hill stride, slow down the belt (or jump onto the sides of the treadmill) first. If you slow down the treadmill, then walk or jog at a lower incline for 1.5-2 minutes. If you are resting with your feet on the side of the treadmill, then you can stand and rest for 1-2 minutes in between each stride.
  • Repeat for a total of 4-8 hill strides.

Does Running Up Hills Improve Speed?

If you make it a point to train on hills or treadmill inclines, will you become a faster runner? Isn’t it better just to do intervals outside if all you can run is flat terrain? Could treadmill incline workouts make you slower, since you do them at a slower pace than flat ground intervals?

Yes! Uphill running requires a large amount of muscular power – more than you use running fast on flat ground. When you do hill repeats or long hill climbs on the treadmill, you develop more muscular power. This adaptation allows you to run faster in hilly races. The muscular power translates to faster flat ground running as well.

Make Strength Training a Priority

Strength training will benefit every runner. This is especially applicable if you are training for a hilly race. Strength training will strengthen your legs to propel you up the ascents. It will also prevent your form from breaking down. Strength training also reduces the amount of muscle damage incurred during a race. Less muscle damage means the hills less likely to beat you up during the final few miles. Finally, strength training improves your running economy, so you more efficient on both uphills and downhills.

Even one session of strength training per week will improve your ability to run hills. Two to three sessions per week are optimal, especially if you are training for a hilly race and not often running hills. Beginners can start with bodyweight movements; if you are familiar with strength training, challenge yourself with enough weight to fatigue you by the final rep. 

For a course with a significant amount of downhill, choose eccentric strength exercises to prepare your muscles for the repetitive impact. Downhill running is a series of eccentric actions, which is why it can beat up your quads so badly. Eccentric exercises focus on the lengthening part of a movement, often when you are lowering your bodyweight or lowering a weight. You can focus on eccentric strength in any exercise by slowing down (3-5 counts) on the lowering phase, such as when you lower into a squat or deadlift.

Plyometrics will improve your power output and running economy. (Not sure how to do plyometrics? Read this article to understand how to include plyometrics in your training.) Running up a hill is essentially a series of single leg hops that fight against gravity. Incorporate one or two plyometric exercises into your strength sessions: single leg hops, jump squats, jumping lunges, box jumps, etc. Aim for 2-3 sets of 30 seconds of each exercise, with a couple of minutes rest in between to allow for your fast-twitch muscles and neuromuscular connections to recover.

Training for a Hilly Race in a Flat Area

Improve Your Fatigue Resistance 

While it’s not a perfect equivalency, the stronger of a runner you are, the better you can handle hills. One simple method to become a stronger runner? Increase your mileage. 

Higher mileage improves your running economy, aerobic capacity, and fatigue resistance. The better these physiological factors are, the less likely you are to get winded on an uphill. 

Increasing your mileage does come with higher injury risk, so build with caution. Increase your mileage gradually, allow for weeks to adapt, and cutback every few weeks for recovery. Scale back your hard workouts appropriately as you adapt to higher mileage.

In some scenarios, if your option is between driving 20 minutes each way to run 45 minutes on hills or completing a 75 minute run on flat, I would argue the longer, the flat run is overall more beneficial – especially if you are training for anything longer than a half marathon. 

Obviously, there is a point of diminishing returns. You do not want to run junk miles, nor do you want to run so many miles that you overtrain. 

Run off Road

If hill training on the treadmill is not an option, do not give up. Even in a very flat area, there is at usually some form of climbing available. You just have to be creative!

Trail running will strengthen your legs, even if you do not encounter tons of elevation change. The variety and instability of trail running work your muscles differently than the roads. Don’t let the trails intimidate you if you are accustomed to the roads; try these trail running tips for road runners.

Another option, especially in big cities, is stair running. Find a long set of stairs outdoors, channel your inner Rocky, and incorporate them into your runs. Focus on good form and powerful steps when running stairs. If you can safely run on them, bridges can serve as “hills” in flat areas.

Related: How to Start Trail Running as a Road Runner on the Tread Lightly Podcast

Simulate Hills With Cross-training

Use your cross-training days to develop climbing strength. Cross-train on the stair machine, crank the resistance up high on the elliptical or bike, or drive out on the weekends to go hiking. You will strengthen your quads and glutes for running uphill. Even if it’s not running, climbing-focused cross-training workouts will also make you more confident and comfortable on hills.

Hill Training on the Treadmill, Recapped

If you live in a flat area, you can still prepare for a hilly race! Treadmill workouts, cross-training, and strength training work will all help you feel stronger and more confident when running hills on race day. These interventions matter the most in the six to ten weeks before a race, so prioritize them as much in that timeframe as you can. Not every run needs to be hilly – even one hilly treadmill run per week will help!

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9 Responses

  1. Training for Big Sur posed a huge challenge considering that we have not much in the way of hills here! My coach had me do a ton of posterior chain work and it paid off well. Unfortunately, I didn’t fare as well on the downhills! As much as she tried to prepare me for it, it’s a lot harder to train for those. The good news was that the day after Big Sur and for the rest of the week while we explored Yosemite, I felt great!

    1. That’s awesome that you were able to explore Yosemite afterward! I remember getting stuck on the downhill hike after CIM, which is way less hilly than Big Sur. It sounds like your coach prepared you really well for that race!

  2. I fully agree that the treadmill, strength training and the stepmill are vital tools for hills. After running Loon Mountain Race on Sunday, so many friends were super sore. I wasn’t at all and I believe it’s because of the strength training. It makes a huge difference!

  3. I am amazed at how much strength training has helped me on the hills. I do lunges and squats, and can run up hills much more easily than I used to. Thanks for the great tips!

  4. These are great tips! I haven’t had a super hilly race but there are a few races around town that do go over bridges and overpasses that can be taxing. Once I began incorporating strength work into my training, I felt much stronger and confident during those sections. Treadmill incline works are great too!

  5. These are great and inventive ideas for training for a hilly race. I have plenty of hills where I live but sometimes use a bridge that’s just a mile from home for repeats, so that might be a good alternative for someone who lives in a flat area too.

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