How to Train for Hilly Races

Everything to know about adding inclines to training, including how often to tackle them and the best strength moves for prepping your legs.


Running a marathon or ultra-marathon like the Comrades or Two Oceans is a difficult feat in and of itself. Add in their hilly courses and it adds a new level of challenging.

So how can you add hills to your own training plan? Can running hills all the time be too much? And what do you do if you don’t have access to hills? To answer these questions, we chatted with expert run coaches to find out their best tips for how to train for hilly marathons.

How Often to Incorporate Hills Into Your Marathon or Ultra Training Plan
If you live in a hilly area there’s nothing wrong with running hills on your regular runs — it will only help you come race day, elite marathon coach Ben Rosario says. “Not the hilliest run you can find necessarily, but there is nothing wrong with having a little bit of up and down in your runs everyday,” he adds.

If you don’t live in a hilly area, but you’re able to get to some place with hills, adding hills to your runs twice a week is smart, especially if you’re a more seasoned runner who has some base fitness. Incorporating hills into your weekly long run and speed session is a good place to start, Rosario suggests.

For novice runners taking on a hilly marathon, who have never consistently run hills before, be careful not to take on too much too fast, as you can get injured if you add hills into your training too aggressively or too quickly, says Richelle Weeks, physical therapist, certified run coach and marathoner.

To make sure you don’t overdo it, Weeks advises new runners start with adding hills to one shorter run per week, until you get comfortable with climbing. Then, gradually add distance and more hills over the course of four to six weeks. “This is why I recommend a marathon training session be 20 weeks so there’s plenty of time to introduce hills,” says Weeks.

She also recommends runners have a comfortable base of running fitness first, before tackling inclines. “Most runners who get injured training for a marathon get their injury in the first month or the last month,” Weeks says. That’s because runners often are upping too many variables at once, like frequency, volume, speed, and hills. “Build frequency and volume first to get a good base. Then add in hills or speed, one at a time,” she adds.

I have an 8k loop from my home with four big hills involved, so I would always incorporate this loop into my weekend long run, sometimes doubling it as my distance increased over the weeks. In previous marathon training, I mainly stuck to flat paths for longer runs. While my times were slower on that loop because of the hills, I did notice the more I ran it, the more efficient I was at covering climbs.

My weekend long run consisted of, on average, 370m of elevation gains for my 15-25K runs, reaching more than 450m for my 32km.

How to Prep for a Hilly Marathon on a Treadmill if You Don’t Live Near Hills

If you can’t find a hilly route, finding a treadmill with both incline and decline capabilities is the next best thing, says Rosario. For many runners who don’t have access to a treadmill with decline options, Weeks advises strength training to build your quadriceps, which you need strong to tackle tough descents (see moves below).

You can research the elevation changes on the course you’ll run, and simulate that on the treadmill. If you’re doing a 25km treadmill run, for example, Rosario suggests plugging in the course inclines based on the elevation changes. For example, if you notice your course has a 6%  grade at kilometre 15 that stretches for one kilometre, add that percent and duration into your treadmill workout.

Three Hill Workouts for the Treadmill

How to Handle Recovery Runs on Hills
It’s a good idea to keep recovery runs flat and easy during marathon training, as you want your easy runs to stay easy! If that means driving to a flat path or track, and you have the time, certainly do so, Rosario says.

If you can’t get to a flatter area, it’s okay to have those hills on your easy runs, with one caveat: Accept that you’ll really slow down your pace. “If you’re doing a recovery run, make sure you keep it easy, and if that means stopping and walking to go up the hills to keep your heart rate low and to make it feel like a relaxed run, then walk up the hills,” says Weeks.

For example, I ran some of the steeper hills on my recovery runs at a 6- to 7-minute kilometre pace, while my typical recovery pace is about a 5:30 mins/km. This strategy of adding hills to my recovery runs actually helped throughout the race. When the hills got long and taxing toward the end of the course, I reminded myself to find my recovery pace and settle into it, so I could make it through the hills and feel strong for the subsequent kilometres.

My Garmin smartwatch helped me maintain a lower effort on recovery runs, as I could keep an eye on my pace and heart rate, making sure I wasn’t exerting too much effort.

What to Do About Speed Workouts When Prepping for a Hilly Marathon
A mistake many runners make when it comes to training for a hilly marathon is tackling their hard workouts — like mile repeats or tempo runs — on the track or flat path that they’re comfortable with, Rosario says. The reason that’s an issue is because you’re not training your leg muscles to handle the demands of running hills at a harder effort.

Hill-based workouts ask more of the quads and calves and better prepare you for race day, Rosario adds, which is why speed workouts are precisely where you should incorporate hills. Just remember: “Hilly loops aren’t as cut and dry as training on a track,” he says, meaning your times are going to vary more as you run uphill and downhill, rather than sticking with a specific pace.

If you’re doing a speed session with hills, pay attention to your effort instead of pace, Rosario says, and give the workout the same effort you would on the track. For example, if you’re doing kilometre repeats with hills at threshold, instead of focusing on trying to hit a specific time, focus on maintaining about a 6 to 7 on the RPE scale (that’s a hard effort, but you can still say a few words).

Repeating the same hilly loop over and over again for those repeats will also help you see how you’re improving.

How to Strength Train for a Hilly Race
On average, two strength workouts a week is a good goal for most runners looking to prepare for a hilly marathon or ultra, says Weeks. Those workouts can include both uphill and downhill strength movements in each session.

“It’s the quads that are beat to shreds after the race,” says Rosario. That’s why it’s important to incorporate strength moves to build up the quads so they can withstand the impact.

If you’re a lower mileage runner (around 50 or fewer kilometrees per week), you can do strength work on non-running days. High-mileage runners who do two or more speed sessions per week and a long run would benefit from keeping their easy days easy and hard days hard. So Weeks suggests pairing strength work with speed days.

Strength Exercises for Downhill Running
These exercises strengthen the quads and help your knees get used to the gradual pressure you’ll experience running downhill, says Weeks.

How to use this list: Add these moves anytime in your training cycle, as long as its at least one month before your race, as you don’t want to introduce anything new close to a race, Weeks says.

Complete the moves as a circuit, aiming for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, with 60 to 90 seconds of rest between exercises. You’ll need a low box step.

Slant Board Squat

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart on a slant board. Hold a light weight at chest. (Gradually increase weight as you get stronger.)
  2. Keep heels elevated and drop into a deep squat by sending hips down and back. Hold for 1-3 seconds.
  3. Drive through feet to stand back up.
  4. Repeat.

Forward Weighted Step Down

  1. Stand with both feet on a low box or step, hip-width apart. Hold a weight in each hand down by sides. Shift weight to left foot.
  2. Send hips slightly back and down and bend left knee, right heel coming off the step in front of you. Lower until you tap floor with heel.
  3. Drive through left foot to stand back up.
  4. Repeat.
  5. Then switch sides.

Box Jump

  1. Start with a low box, like a step. (As you progress, increase the height.)
  2. Squat down, then jump up with both feet onto the top of the box.
  3. Squeeze butt and extend knees and hips to stand up on the box.
  4. Step back down, one foot at a time.
  5. Repeat.

Reverse Nordic

Courtesy Dan Giordano
  1. Start kneeling on both knees, toes tucked under and placed firmly on the floor. Keep arms at sides, back straight, quads and glutes engaged.
  2. Lean the body (from knees up) backward toward heels as far as you can go while maintaining a straight line with body.
  3. Return to kneeling position.
  4. Repeat.

Strength Exercises for Running Up Hills
“Uphill running puts more forces through the glute max, hamstrings and calves so by strengthening these areas you can feel stronger climbing. And you’ll reduce your injury risk in these areas as well,” says Weeks

How to use this list: As with the downhill exercises, add these anytime into your training, up to a month before the race.

Complete the moves as a circuit, aiming for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, with 60 to 90 seconds of rest between exercises. You’ll need a set of dumbbells.

Bulgarian Split Squat

  1. Stand in front of a box, step, or chair, about at knee height, facing away from it. Extend standing left leg out, and place heel on ground. Stand up, keeping left leg in place and planting foot. Place back right leg on the chair behind you. Hold a weigh in each hand, down by sides. This is your starting position.
  2. Lean slightly forward at hips and with left front foot planted firmly on ground, take an inhale and bend left leg to lower toward floor. Lower until back knee hovers just above the floor or as close to it as you can go while keeping left knee tracking over toes.
  3. Exhale and drive left foot into floor to stand up, straightening front leg.
  4. Repeat.
  5. Then switch sides.

Single-Leg Weighted Calf Raise

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart on top of a box and arms at sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Lift right foot off the ground.
  2. Engage abs for stability and roll up onto the ball of left foot, lifting the right heel off the box.
  3. Hold for 5 seconds, then lower heel back down.
  4. Repeat.
  5. Then switch sides.

Single-Leg Glute Bridge

  1. Lie faceup, knees bent, feet planted, arms down by sides on the floor. Lift right leg up toward the ceiling but keep both knees aligned.
  2. Engage glutes as you lift hips up, driving through left heel.
  3. Lower back to the floor, and repeat for 4 reps.
  4. Repeat on the opposite side with left leg up.
  5. Alternate legs every 4 reps.

Form Tips for Running Hills in a Marathon
Downhills are more dangerous than the uphills, say Rosario, because they cause us to run in a way that is less efficient. “When we run up a hill, there’s no way to get up it except fairly efficiently,” he says. “You’re running in a way that’s as close to perfect [form] as possible [on the uphill].”

That said, you still want to focus on solid running form when going up an incline. Think about running with a tall posture (avoid dropping your head and shoulders), a forward lean from the ankles, and avoid overstriding by keeping your foot strike underneath you. Also, use your glutes to push off and offer power.

When running downhill, runners tend to land hard on their heels, which sends a lot of shock through and up the kinetic chain — from the heel to the legs and hips — which causes eventual soreness post race because the body is having to violently absorb all that shock, Rosario says.

Allow your feet to land closer to the hips, as opposed to way out in front of you in an overstride, as this creates a more gentle impact on the body, Weeks adds.

What runners need to practice, Rosarios says, is letting gravity do the work on the downhill. “You don’t want to bomb down the hill out of control, but you also don’t want to put on the brakes. You want to run as smoothly as possible down the hill,” he says. “It’s that medium effort that you want to find [running downhills] which takes time to learn and practice.”

READ MORE ON: hill-training hills marathon training strength-training

Copyright © 2024 Hearst