Run For Those Hills


I hope that title didn’t steer you away from reading this.  I know hills generally really stink.  Most people hate them.  Sadists seem to love them (at least that is what I think they must be).  I have yet to meet a person who looks at race elevation charts hoping to find a hilly marathon.  But there really is a lot to be gained by adding hills to your runs.

Here in Chicago there are not a lot of hills to be found, but when I am in New York City I often run Central Park and there you will find they are a dime a dozen.  Head up to the north end of the park and you will find the ultimate hill to train on.  It is one of those hills where reach what you think is the top and start to smile thinking you made it, only to realize that it has just begun.  That kind of hill!  To be honest, when I go for a hilly run like Central Park I don’t mind dealing with the ups and downs that much because I know what to expect.  If you can learn to embrace hills, even just a little bit, you will find gains in your speed and racing technique.

Hill training at the very core helps build up your cardiovascular system.  It teaches your body to become more efficient at getting that oxygen into your body and then sending it out to your muscles.  This training will also help your body to get rid of that nasty lactic acid faster.  While hills put a minimal amount of stress on your body they also help you to improve your running form, making you an all around more efficient runner.

It is really important to know what to expect at your upcoming races.  If you have hilly terrain on your race elevation maps, you are going to definitely want to add this training to your schedule.  Match your training to the type of terrain you will be dealing with and you will see an improvement in your race times.  That being said, if Boston is on your schedule this year, you are probably already knocking out hill workouts.  If you are training for Chicago, a rather flat course, you won’t need to focus as much on hill workouts (but you should still do them).

So how do you implement this into your training?  First you need to find either a hilly course or at least one good hill.  At the very basic level hills are a bit like intervals.  You are going to run with a very brisk pace up to the hill and then jog at a conversation pace to recover before repeating this plan.  If you are running your hills on a course you will run briskly up and then jog slowly to the next one.  If you are using just one hill, you will simply just run up and jog slowly back down to the bottom.  A good goal is to do this series of repetitions for about 15-30 minutes.

Keep in mind that you are not sprinting up to the top of the hill.  This is a brisk, but submaximal pace.  Follow this up with a nice easy gait back to the start.  Your pace will also vary on how steep the hill is and by how many repetitions you will be doing.  If you are only doing 5 sets on a rather small hill, you can push the pace a bit more than if you are doing 10 sets on a very steep hill.

If you want to build hill work into your training plan you can do a 15 minute warm up at the start, followed by 15-30 minutes of hill training and then end with a 15 minute cool down.  This will make for a well rounded workout.


Another great thing about working on hills is that it can really help you with your race technique.  A great coach, my dad, told me that races can be won on the hills.  I have actually seen this work in my favor.  I have run several races that either have one or two giant hills or the entire course has been based around hills.  In the case of the race with a few giant hills I have gone into the race knowing that I will need to save a little something for those hills.  When I finally get to that hill I give it a good push.  It is here where your mind starts to scream and cry and tell you this sucks!  If you ignore it and push through it you will start to pass a lot of runners who are either breaking down mentally or pushed off too hard at the start.  On the other hand, during races built on an entire hilly course you can give it a steady pace and use the hills to pass a lot of runners who struggle (again either mentally or physically) getting up those hills.  Both of these techniques have allowed me to really come out ahead during races.

Finally, there is another rule that I always keep in mind when dealing with hills and every time I run Central Park.  For every uphill, remember there is likely to be a downhill.  So tuck your chin, look straight ahead and deal with it.  There is a good chance than when you reach the top you are going to have some time to coast.

This is a pic from a race in Traverse City, MI the dreaded "Mt. McKinley."  It is truly brutal and to steep that running downhill is scary!

This is a pic I found on the web from a race in Traverse City, MI up the dreaded “Mt. McKinley.” It is truly brutal and so steep that even running downhill is scary! It is the reason I say I will never run it again when I cross the finish every single year.

49 thoughts on “Run For Those Hills

  1. Haha. Here in Vermont I have no choice but to run these hills – roller coaster hills. After a while you get used to hills, but man those flat courses are welcome when I find them.

  2. This post is great and all too true. If you train for hills, the rest is just easy. I’ve never appreciated a long, flat run as much as I do after I finish a hill.

  3. I love hills and I love hilly races… I totally agree with you on your post. With the high school kids I coach (especially when it is the beginning of the season) I try to get hill workouts in! It is excellent for your form to and it helps with your speed muscles. Great article!

  4. It’s funny how southern New England is so low lying, but has nothing but hills. I love to run hills though, ’cause when I run flat stuff it feels easy peasy. Doesn’t everybody have that one spot, mine is a trail run, with the giant hill for when they want to humble themselves?

  5. As the weather warmed up, I started running outside again as opposed to doing the elliptical or bike inside. With Nashville being so hilly, my hip flexors are definitely feeling the burn! Great to hear all the positives of running hills!

    • You probably will feel that a bit for awhile. Making the transition from treadmill to outside will definitely make certain body parts sing a bit. But keep it up and you will see some great benefits to your running and health!

  6. When it comes to hills during a race, I have a rather twisted approach. I look at the hill as if the course is purposely trying to test me. I usually say something along the lines of “Is that the best you got,” or “you’re just flat ground that doesn’t know any better,” or my favorite “bring it, b#tch!” It usually gets a laugh from those runners around me and then up we go.

  7. Definitely a lot of truth in what you say. I’m just starting to run again at a very low level. Last week I did a hilly run, and felt like my chest would burst. But yesterday on the flat I could feel that it had done me good. I think I’ll incorporate a hilly one once a week or two – they lose a lot of their scariness after a while.

  8. my number one rule for running up hills: don’t try to race up it, you will pass out and die. Slow and steady wins that race.

  9. Hill training is really important and I love it!! I used to dread hills, but now am pretty tough when it comes to them. Training hills under 7 minute pace now and shocked at how far I’ve come! Great post!

  10. I do a lot of my running in Central Park and I feel the same way about the hills in the 110th Street area. Running hills are hard but necessary. And when I’m done, I always feel so accomplished and fit! So I keep going back for more.

  11. Great post! I just started to incorporate hills into my half marathon training. My running friends recommended a subdivision that has rolling hills including one that has been nicknamed the Goliath. I was pretty excited after tacking that part last night. I can get a pretty good 4-5 mile workout there so I am going to start running there more often.

  12. I’m running the Blue Ridge Marathon in Roanoke VA in April, and there is something like 7400 feet of elevation change over the course of the race. And in Florida, there might be 74 inches of elevation change in the entire state! Needless to say, I’m not looking to PR at that race!

  13. Where I live, I can’t run a mile in any direction without hitting some kind of hill. I’m not a huge fan of speed work but I definitely use those hills. Such an awesome feeling to hit the top on the 10th mile of a training run knowing the rest of the way is downhill.

    • Exactly. Your picture of the Randall’s Island bridge reminded me of doing long 10+ mile runs on the island and on the way home that hill up the bridge feels so brutal. But coming down sure feels fast!

  14. Pingback: Weekend Roundup | Life Sans God

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