Have you ever altered your running route just to avoid a hill? These running hills tips will help change your mindset, so that even if you don’t love them…you might just start to seek them out.
Running hills everyday is a great way to build leg strength that translates in to the power you need for speed an endurance. But just because you live on a hilly route doesn’t mean that every run should be a hard workout.
There’s a difference between uphill workouts and easy runs with hills.
If find yourself subconsciously avoiding hilly routes because you’re tired then hopefully these benefits will encourage you to make them a standard part of your training and to then start adding in some specific workouts like hill sprints.
10 Hill Running Benefits
Running uphill benefits are massive and sometimes surprising, so let’s recap them along with how to run them properly and how to add hill workouts to your training plan to get the maximum benefit!
Running hills tips for everyone! Doesn’t matter whether you’re training for a 5K or marathon, hills are an important part of the process. And they work for everyone from beginners to experienced runners.
Here are just a few of the reasons that every running coach will put some incline training in your plan and why some of the fastest runners you know make them a regular part of training.
#1 Uphill Runs are Strength Workouts
Hill workouts are a form of resistance training and one of the most effective for runners. It’s training specificity which means we are using our muscles for the exactly goal, while building strength.
Hills are one of the first hard workouts we assign to runners for this reason. The increased intensity will force your glutes, hamstrings, calves and core to work harder. This means muscles are being broken down to rebuild with more strength and power.
#2 Running Hills Improves Speed
Uphill running intervals use the same muscles that we would for track workouts. It’s basically a speed workout in disguise. You’ll get that same I want to vomit feeling without over striding.
During uphills your muscles learn to contract with more force and power. Once you get to flat surface not only does it feel easier, but that new found strength and power allows you to run faster in speedwork and races.
#3 Increasing our VO2 Max
Additionally, there are a number of studies showing that including hill sprint workouts increases our VO2 Max. While this is a number on your watch that’s often deceiving, in a real world test it can give us some interesting data.
Specifically with hills we are seeing that it improves your ability to utilize oxygen. That means more oxygen flowing to your muscles allows you sustain harder efforts for a longer period of time.
#4 Uphill Runs Improve Cardiovascular Fitness for Endurance
There’s a reason you often want to avoid hills on your route, it’s harder than running on flat ground! Which is exactly why we include them in our training, so that we can continually challenge our system.
Additionally, we are able to increase our endurance because we’re giving different leg muscles a chance to work.
While living in Miami, I began to realize that running super long on flat ground meant the same muscles had to fire in the same pattern for the duration of the run which lead to much faster fatigue than having some variation.
You begin to fatigue less as you improve muscle elasticity.
#5 Hills Improve Running Form
One of my favorite benefits of hills is that it’s impossible to overstride running uphill. Due to the slope you are slightly leaning forward, it’s impossible for your stride length to be too big. Instead, you’ll be taking shorter and faster steps.
This means you are practicing driving your knee up and the lean without even knowing it. Shorter strides both up and down ensure you land mid-foot.
Additionally, the strength you’re building in your quadriceps will make it easier on every surface to pick up your knees. Driving them in front of you rather than back for good form.
#6 Running Hills Reduces Risk of Injury
There are a number of specific reasons that uphill running can reduce injuries. We already covered the strength building and the better running form, but a few more reasons.
- Joints are more protected due to the shorter distance to ground contact
- The slight forward lean from the ankles can help offset shin splints
- Stronger muscles are more fatigue resistant which means better able to hold you in good alignment
#7 Uphill Running Burns More Calories
Let’s be honest I love that hills burn more calories too because one of my favorite things about running…is eating.
Due to the harder effort, you’ll be both building muscle for the long term and burning more calories in the short term.
Does running hills help burn fat? Yes, but all workouts do. However, long steady state runs are the most ideal for turning your body in to a fat burner, while short intense sessions can up the calorie burn for a specific workout.
And yes, as I note with trekking poles below you can increase the burn even more by using them if you’re doing super technical trail running…which for me usually looks like hiking, ha!
#8 Uphill Running Leads to Epic Views
One of the things that keeps me going on long trail runs is wondering what I’ll see from the top! It’s that birds eye view giving you a peak out over the area you’ve covered.
Not only is it gorgeous, but there’s a sense of real accomplishment in that moment.
#9 Hilly Runs Mean Downhills
Colorado trail running means that most runs will start uphill. I used to really bemoan this until I realized that it meant my run back was downhill! WOHOOO.
While I may not love a steep decline, a 1-3% gradient is pure pleasure. You can let your legs fly, while your HR remains lower. It’s such a powerful way to finish a run feeling like you could just keep going.
And because you started the run with a hard effort the finished fast, it’s a massive training stimulus on multiple levels.
#10 Uphill Runs Teach Us to Run on Effort
If you’re super tied to the pace on your watch, then uphill running is going to be extremely frustrating. But if you use that time instead to start tapping in to how to run by perceived effort, you’ll end up a much better racer.
While the ideal race day scenario is an even pace from start to finish, that doesn’t apply to hilly races like NYC or Boston. Instead, you need to focus on finding a consistent effort level.
That allows you to run faster on the flats and downhills, while having enough energy to hit the hills.Now let’s talk about running hills the right way to ensure they really are injury prevention, not creation.You'll never skip running hills again after reading this! via @runtothefinish #RunChat Click To Tweet
7 Tips for How to Run Hills
What if a few changes could making running hills feel easier and make your time spent there more useful? They can! So let’s work on them.
One of the most common mistakes runners make is incorrect form when tackling a behemoth of a hill.
- Shorter stride
- Less intensity
- Change your arm swing
- Stay tall
- Fuel up
Hill training is actually one of the best ways to improve your overall running form. Use these hill running techniques to get up and over feeling better.
Optimize Your Stride
Rather than extending your stride as if trying to power up the hill, shorten it. It might feel awkwardly short at first, but this will increase foot turn over and requires a great deal less effort.
Think about picking your knee up, which you’ll see in the example of Kilian below. You’re going for that optimal stride you often see with sprinters on the track.
Stop attacking hills, unless you’re doing a hill interval workout. Charging up hill is just wasting energy that you could be using to gain speed on the downhill or maintain your pace later.
Instead, focus on maintaining the effort of your run prior to the hill. In fact, one of the keys to good downhill speed is not being exhausted from the uphill.
Upper Cut Arm Swing
ChiRunning says to imagine that you’re punching someone in front of you with an upper cut. This is to say your arms stay at your sides, but punch up instead of just forward to help propel you.
Once again, you want to ensure your arms are being used to propel you, not just hanging by your sides and not crossing in front of your body.
In fact, many trail runners like to utilize trekking poles which help you to stabilize yourself on the steep inclines, declines and technical parts. HUGE bonus because you’re now getting a full body workout!
Pictured here Killian Jornet doing the upper cut, lifting his knees and landing on forefoot…yeah he’s kinda of an amazing runner.
Practice Perfect Posture
When we get tired, we look down and our shoulders start to slump…this is not going to make getting up the hill easier. In fact it’s going to make breathing harder and slow you down, so pretend someone is at the top and a rope is attached to your hips and pulling.
Imagery is a great tool used by a lot of elite runners, why wouldn’t you attempt it as well? That rope pulling you to the top can mentally conserve energy or keep your chest up and pulling forward.
Fuel for the Effort
Hills increase your heart rate, at which point your body switches from fat to carbs for fuel. Ingesting some carbs prior to hitting steep or hilly portions of a longer training run can be beneficial.
This could mean taking a shot blok 5 minutes before you start hitting hills or after you’ve warmed up and are ready to take on a hill workout.
Downhill runs are a whole different beast, which is why I’ve written a separate post about it! You need to change your form to save your knees and learn how to take advantage of the flow for race day PR’s.
3 Hill Workouts
Now you understand uphill running benefits and tips to make you a better hill runner. Let’s explore how often to include hill workouts and some examples.
The type of hill workouts you do will vary based upon the goal in your training.
Speed focused: Include hill sprints on steep inclines
Hilly race training: Include longer duration uphill intervals on less steep inclines.
Overall fitness: Including a variety of hilly runs, hill sprints and hill intervals throughout your training program
A few notes when it comes to finding hills for a good workout.
- Find a steep hill near you for repeats. Nothing close? We used bridges in Miami and sometimes the ramps inside an empty parking garage when running in a group.
- Find rolling routes for longer runs. It might be worth a little drive to help you get the variety.
- Embrace the treadmill for long steady inclines, if you don’t have one near you.
If you haven’t been doing hills, then start with short hills that have a very small incline. Get used to the feel of both up and down before tackling bigger hills.
At the end of one of your regular easy runs:
- add in 5 repeats of 20 seconds hard uphill
- walking down to a full recovery
- go again
- Within a few weeks, try adding these repeats to the end of a few runs
From there you can start to change things up with the hill workouts below.
Hills Early in Marathon Training
Doing this will build quality leg strength and has been shown to help with injury prevention per Matt Fitzgerald. It’s a key for the runners I coach and I think has kept many of them injury free.
Early in your half marathon training plan you can simply end any of your weekday or long runs with 5-10 hill repeats, as noted above. At first just get used to running up and walking down, after a few weeks start increasing the uphill pace and over time increase the duration.
Examples of increasing reps, time or effort:
- 5 reps x 20 seconds – 10K
- 8 reps x 30 seconds – 10K
- 12 reps x 15 seconds – 5K pace
- 5 reps x 1 minute – half marathon pace
Added to Normal Runs
If you can find a path with rolling hills, start adding it in to your weekly rotation of runs. If you can do it up to 3 times a week, you’ll quickly reap the speed and strength benefits, but don’t do it at the exclusion of taking enough runs easy and fully recovering between workouts.
Rolling hills throughout your workout are especially beneficial when you start thinking about conquering heartbreak hill!
- Warm up with 10-15 minutes easy running
- Increase effort to medium (half marathon pace, not 5K) for 2-3 miles of rolling hills
- Cool down with 10-15 minutes easy running
Another option is to run it more as a fartlek style workout.
- Warm up with 10-15 minutes easy running
- 10 x 1 minute hard efforts, focus on starting them at the bottom of a hill
- Cool down with 10-15 minutes easy running
Pace or Effort
Learning to focus on effort over pace can make conquering hills easier.
As you allow your body to slow conserving energy on the way up, pick up speed on the way down and even out in the flat areas.
I love doing this treadmill workout because your hard efforts are rewarded. In this workout, your goal is to try allow your pace to change as needed to maintain the same effort level. You’ll find by the 0% that your legs are ready to fly.
- Warm up with 10 minutes easy running
- 1 min @ 3% incline
- 1 min @ 5% incline
- 1 min @ 0% incline
- 1 min @ 1% incline
- repeat 3-10 times
All right, no more running excuses! Now you know the benefits of hill running, I’m absolutely positive there will be fights over space on every nearby hill.
Looking for more great training tips? Start here!
- Tips to Train for a Hilly Race
- Tips for Running in the Wind
- How Altitude Impacts Running Performance
- Beginner Trail Running Tips
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