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Running up that hill: training with hills

I once ran a Ragnar relay where my third leg was essentially seven miles of hills. Most were undulating low things, something I could still handle after already having run two legs of the relay and slept maybe three hours. But, there was one monster hill I could see coming at me - the kind of hill your teammates wait at the top of to cheer you on. I was really depleted and didn’t see myself surging up with confidence, but dying halfway up wasn’t appealing either, so I decided on a very brisk power walk. I “charged” up the hill and was indeed met by cheers from my teammates, including comments that I’d ascended faster than a couple of cyclists on the road. While that was probably not true, it did give me the mental boost needed to finish the leg, for a relay total of 20 miles.

Normally done on a bit more sleep than what you can get during a Ragnar relay, hills are a great strength building tool in the runner’s toolkit. Other benefits of running uphill include the ability to focus on proper form and less stress on your body compared to flat surfaces (decreasing injury risk). You can incorporate hills into your training several different ways. 

A rocky path leads up a steep, green hillside
The only way is up!

Hill repeats are essentially just running up a hill and walking or slowly jogging back down. The recovery time, length and slope of the hill, and number of repeats can be varied to provide different stimulus. These can be done outside on the road or trail, or inside on a treadmill. For a hill repeat workout you might, for example, run a two mile warmup, do eight two-minute hill repeats with a slow jog downhill, and then a one mile cooldown. You might also find a hill with multiple “legs” (e.g., hill, small distance of flat, more hill) and run up each leg progressively faster. 

Hilly loops are another good way to incorporate hills, without the sometimes daunting nature of hill repeats. They can also be useful if you're planning to run a hilly race and are able to find a training route that mimics the race course. One popular lollipop route in my town is often used for those training for the Boston Marathon hills, for instance. For a hilly loop workout you might, for example, run a flat one mile warm, then cover three miles with undulating hills, and run a flat one mile cooldown.

Strava and its segment finder can be helpful for finding both hills for repeats and hilly loops. Form-wise, when running uphills, remember to keep your head and eyes up so your body doesn’t hunch over, use your arms to pump, and focus on driving your knees up. 

Running downhill is quite different from uphill. You are loading different muscles and the risk of injury is higher with uphill running compared to downhill; one study found that running downhill increased normal impact forces by 54% compared to flat running. Focus on not overstriding, let your legs turn over quickly, and allow the hill to carry you down. Be careful with very steep downhills. If you’re running certain races, like the popular Revel courses or the Boston Marathon, it's important to incorporate this type of workout into your training so you can enjoy race day. (For more on downhills in the Boston Marathon, check out this Outside article).

My home high school cross country course had one monster of a hill on it. I still remember my coach telling us to use it as a place to pick off other runners and to keep pushing through once we got to the top so they didn’t catch back up (Jack Daniels recommends 50 footfalls after the top of the hill in Daniels’ Running Formula). I still think of those mental cues today when I’m running. I’ve also picked up other cues over time that help me run hills strongly. If I’m feeling good one day, I might pretend I have a friend running behind me and I need to push the pace and pull her up the hill. If I’m tired, I imagine that I am the one hitching a ride up the hill behind a friend. Other times, I’ll really focus on my arms to “marionette” my legs forward, or pick a word to repeat on each step (e.g.,“push”, “go”). There are lots of ways to get creative and use your mind to help your legs! 

In a periodized training program, hill workouts are often included in the strength phase, coming after base building and before more race-specific work. Of course, if you live in a hilly area, easy runs throughout your training may be hilly - congratulations, they make you that much stronger! As long as your effort is appropriate for an easy run or recovery run, it’s not necessary to go out of your way finding flat surfaces for base building. If you have any questions about incorporating hills into your training, feel free to reach out!

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