When I’m training for a race, Saturday mornings often involve one of two things – tempo running (which I love) or hill training (which I hate).

I’m not talking about leisurely runs on hilly terrain, but rather, finding a hill (such as one of the above) and hurling myself up and down it many times as fast as possible. It’s the one type of run that I have trouble motivating myself to do, unless I’m paying someone like my coach to make me do it or somehow am able to convince a friend to join me.

So today, I woke up with a particularly strong sense of dread, because:

Hills x (no coach + no running buddy) = a VERY unmotivated Claire.

I looked out the window – wet and windy. I looked at my training schedule – HILLS. I looked at the Cadbury Creme Egg wrappers from last night – hmm…

Why hills are a crucial part of training

Hill running is (a) necessary (evil) to becoming a faster and more powerful runner. Many runners already do a variety of strength training exercises in the gym – such as lunges and squats – which is great, but you also need to build strength through specific types of running to really see results. Sure, your long run helps you build strength and endurance, as do your tempo and interval runs. But if you’re training for a hilly race, or even if your event only has one hill, it will obviously help to have practiced powering up some hills in advance! Or even if you are not facing any hills on race day, think how much easier that flat course will feel after regular hill training. There’s no way I could have achieved my goal time in the NYC marathon had I not done regular, increasingly challenging hill sessions, as instructed by my coach. That hill at mile 23 still nearly killed me, but I pushed through it!

Finding a hill

Ideally, you should always try to do your hill sessions outdoors, to simulate potential race conditions as closely as possible. You can recreate a hill on the treadmill if you don’t have easy access to a “real” hill, but you won’t get wind resistance, people in your way, or a chance to practice your downhill technique. I also find that running outdoors makes it more likely that I’ll reach the top – on a treadmill, it’s too easy to simply turn down the incline percentage when I start to feel tired, versus outdoors where I actually see the top of the hill and feel more compelled to get there!

The hill doesn’t have to be insanely steep or long – but steep and long enough that you can run up it at a hard effort level for at least one minute. I say effort level rather than pace because we are obviously dealing with incline, and thus cannot expect to maintain the same pace used in tempo or VO2 max sessions.

The photos above demonstrate the types of hills I usually choose – often ones that gradually become steeper and take roughly one minute to crest. I tend to do hills on paved paths (easier/safer to run down) than on grass, although try both and see what you prefer. Always good to mix things up!

What to do once you get there

If you’re new to hill training, I suggest you read more about it in this RW article. It’s a bit old, but the information is still useful, especially on hill running technique which is very important.

Key points for running uphill: Maintain good posture, leaning forward slightly; do not look down – keep head upright and neutral, with gaze straight ahead (not on top of hill); shorten your stride so that your cadence increases (I find it helpful to count in threes, quickly); and engage your arms to get a good swing going, which will help propel you to the top.

Key points for running downhill: Keep head upright to slow you down slightly; relax your body, especially your feet, and allow them to turnover quickly rather than land slowly and heavily; keep your gaze about 10 feet ahead, scanning for any potential obstacles as you go, so that you’re not staring directly in front of your feet; and lift your arms, still bent, (kind of like wings) if you start to feel out of control and want to slow down.

I started my hill training with this session: 15mins easy (on flat terrain ending at the base of your hill), 8 x 1min hard (after 1min running up, you should be breathless, similar to how you would feel after a 1min interval) with 1-2min walk/jog recoveries (jogging down the hill and walking/standing if necessary), 10mins easy. Assuming you are in moderately good running shape, this is a good first hill session to try – just remember to pace yourself, i.e. don’t go all out on the first one – aim to work equally hard on all eight reps.

Once you do this run a couple of times, you can try progressing to three, four and five minute intervals (doing 4-6 repetitions with 1-3min recoveries, and slowing your pace so that it’s more of a tempo or threshold effort level).  If you’re doing this type of workout on a 1 minute hill, you just run up and down it for the interval time, remembering that the downhills are not recovery. Or search around for alternative workouts – there are TONS out there that you may find more appealing, such as here.

Don’t forget: If you’re training for a hilly race, it’s important to practice not only going up the hill, but also quickly returning to race pace once you’re back on flat terrain. Often the hardest part is not going up but the moment you crest the hill and have to force your jelly legs to pick up speed! Perhaps try repeats of running 1-2min at race pace after a hill, or better yet, if you’re doing a practice race for your big event, choose one with some hills so you can try this under race conditions.

If you can’t find a hill or are too lazy to go there…

Since the weather wasn’t great and I didn’t want to go across town to my regular hill without a running buddy, I decided to compromise – I must do hills, but I will let myself run in my neighborhood gym (which I never do). My intended workout? 30min steady (1.0 incline/7.3mph), 8x1min hard (8.5/7.8) with 1-2min walk/jog recoveries, 15min easy (1.0/6.8).

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do this successfully on the treadmill, especially with my recent shin pain and not knowing what incline/speed to do, but I was pleasantly surprised. Well, perhaps pleasant isn’t the right word…there was nothing pleasant about this run except for having finished it!

My verdict: The treadmill certainly does not replace going to a “real” hill and I wouldn’t advise using it regularly, but it does the trick. It certainly will kick your butt, as long as you are self-motivated enough to not let it defeat you! It was a struggle to make myself do all eight reps, without the top of a hill staring down at me or a running partner to hold me accountable for my workout, but somehow I forced myself to do all eight at the same incline and pace.

So give hill running a try – make it hurt so good!