6 Hill-Training Secrets All Runners Should Know

Learn to love hills and you’ll become a stronger athlete.

Alison Hamlett |

Hills are hard. That’s why many of us run or ride around – rather than over – them in training. You might even choose races that are flat in an effort to keep your hill time to a minimum. But the truth is tackling hills will make you a stronger, faster athlete.

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“Hills make you tough and give you confidence,” says running coach Nick Anderson. “If you can work for 10 minutes uphill, then working for 10 minutes on the flat will seem easier.” Follow these climbing tips and you’ll discover that the only way is up.

Stronger For Longer

Hill running offers a great total-body workout that will protect against stresses and strains. “I pick up fewer injuries when I train on hills,” says Angela Mudge, Buff Skyrunner World Champion in 2006 and 2007. “The changing terrain means that each foot placement is subtly different, so you don’t tend to develop the repetitive injuries experienced on roads.”

The ascents will make you more powerful and the descents are just as useful: the balance and stride-length changes will make your reactions quicker and your body more agile.

Try this: Train on hilly off-road terrain as often as possible. The gradients and uneven surface will condition your body against injury while improving your balance and core strength.

Pace Yourself

If you find that you start every ascent full of energy and enthusiasm, only to fade alarmingly before you’re even halfway up, you’re setting off too fast. And that could spell disaster further into the session.

“If your oxygen and energy consumption are too high early on, you’ll pay later by slowing down and running out of glycogen,” says Anderson. Forget speed when you’re new to hills: focus on effort. “Aim to keep your effort constant,” he says. Try to keep your heart rate at a constant level to preserve energy.

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Try this: Hold back a little next time you climb. You’ll postpone that burning sensation in your legs (caused by lactic acid buildup) for longer, and be fresher to pick up speed on the descents.

Floating On Air

When you incorporate hills into your running training, you’ll develop strategies for climbing efficiently, but you can also learn from the experts. If you know there is a big ascent coming up, slow down a little, relax and prepare yourself mentally to ‘float’ up the hill. Running hills is about getting your breathing right, too. It should be quite a meditative process. Try to breathe in time with your footsteps.

Try this: Run three strides as you breathe in – making sure you pull air right down into your lungs – and three strides as you exhale, forcing the used air out a little more quickly.

Runner’s High

Gravity is good news when you’re descending, but you can also use it to help you climb. Lean forward a little next time you’re running up a hill, and drive your arms at your sides, making sure not to push them across your body.

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Driving your arms across your body exaggerates hip and core movement lower down your body, which might lead to injury. Keep your head up and level.

Try this: Run on your toes; imagine that you are being pulled toward the sky, and keep your hips held high at all times.

Over The Top

As you near the top of a hill on the run, force your arms to work hard to propel your body forward, and upward and to maintain rhythm. Always push for a point just beyond the summit and maintain your faster breathing pace for a minute to get rid of built-up lactic acid. The extra oxygen you inhale will speed up this process.

Try this: Aim to maintain your effort for one minute after you’ve reached the top of a hill, whether you’re running or riding.

RELATED: 6 Exercises to Make You Stronger on Hills

Up The Fun

If the burning sensation in your legs and lungs leads you to avoid hills, there are ways to make them more fun. I found that running hills became fun when I started to pass other people in races. Using your competitive streak to conquer hills is a great idea, but if you’re training rather than racing, make hills more fun by running or cycling with other people, and reward yourself at the top.

Try this: Pick an area with gorgeous views and enjoy them on the way up to take your mind off the climbs,” says Mudge.

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