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.
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, requires more power output from your glutes and hip flexors, and requires 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.
Treadmill Incline Workouts
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.
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.
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. 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.
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
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.
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.
Have you ever prepared for a hilly race when living in a flat area?
What’s the hilliest race you’ve ever run?
Receive Weekly Running Tips & Motivation
Subscribe for my weekly newsletter and receive a free download of injury prevention exercises for runners.