Reader to Reader: Running Hills

What's the best way to tackle hills? Here's what you thought


Posted: 24 July 2007
by Catherine Lee

Training on hills will make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner, improving your leg-muscle strength, boosting your cardiovascular system, and protecting your leg muscles against soreness. Knowing these benefits won't make tackling them any easier though - hills can be daunting and exhausting opponents, especially for beginners. What advice can you offer this week’s questioner as she prepares to tackle her first climbs?

"I’ve been training for three months now and did a 5K in June. Now I’m plodding towards a 10K in September but I have a problem with hills. It's getting increasingly hard to find anywhere even remotely flat to run! In one way, it's a good thing as I'm entered for the Lanhydrock race which is hilly but it's really challenging for a beginner like me to keep going on these hills. Any advice please?" West Country Plodder

Your best answers

  • Just bite the bullet
    I struggle with hills all the time, and I even started to run round them rather than go up them. This was cured when I joined my local running club – it’s on top of a hill, so no matter which way you run back you have to go up the hill. The first time I made it up there without stopping I nearly cried, I was so happy. From then on it was all in my head, I knew I could do it so just never stopped again. – Speedy Snail!
  • Start by conquering the mental mountains
    I approach hills like a challenge. I drop down a gear, shorten my stride, slow down, get my head down and keep going. I will not let a hill beat me, and if I have to walk I make sure it is a brisk pace, which is often quicker and more efficient than running. Having the mentality ‘it’s going to make me a better runner’ is a good motivator. The terrain you are on can make a big difference too. On roads there aren't going to be any traction issues so you can just grit your teeth and keep on plodding. Off-road you constantly need to look a few yards ahead to pick out the best line or see where it’s less slippy (look for grass or fallen leaves and avoid wet mud). The only way to improve is to get out there, run up hills and push yourself. It will hurt, but you will improve! – Nick L
  • It’s effort – not speed – that matters at first
    If you're running a hilly course and you're a beginner, completely forget your minute-miling. Just keep going at the same effort level rather than worrying about speed. A heart-rate monitor is a good way of judging effort but you can just judge how you feel too. This may mean that initially you are walking up the hill, but you will find that it gets easier and easier as your body gets used to it. – Fat Fyes
  • Break the incline into manageable chunks
    Don't beat yourself up if you can't always run up hills – even more experienced runners have off days. One tactic I employ is to focus on a point about 15 feet in front and run towards that, then as I pass that point I focus on another point 15 feet in front and so it goes on. I don't look down as I find this interferes with my running form and I don't look at the top of the hill because I think that can sometimes be too daunting. On particularly steep hills it can help to pump your arms to help push yourself forwards and shorten your stride. You'll find that eventually you'll come to love those hills as they give you great stamina. – Redhead
  • Turn them into drills for an even better workout
    Practice on hills by turning them into reps. Run up until you need a break, then turn around and walk or jog down until slightly recovered. As long as you never walk back to where you started running (if you see what I mean) you'll get a great workout, and the hill will seem less daunting every time you do it. – LauraF
  • Keep your eyes on the road
    Not looking up is really good, especially if you are on your own. I tend to keep looking down for 100 paces then look up to see how far I've got, then look down again. Keep your head and chest up, but just drop your eyes to the road about 10 feet ahead. You always get there in the end whether you've run all the way up or run-walked it. – runner duck
  • Focus on posture and progress
    You need all the air you can get when going uphill and looking down can result in you leaning too far forward which hampers your breathing. Try to stand tall if possible but you don't need to focus on the top – break the slope down into manageable portions e.g. the next gate/lamp post/tree/parked car/whatever. Keep track of your progress – it’s worth singling out one or two key landmarks on each hill and reminding yourself (in a few weeks’ time) that you've been able to get much further without 'dying' than you used to be able to manage. – CumbriAndy
  • Maximise your breathing efficiency
    I prefer to look up the hill as it keeps my windpipe open. I'm normally puffing quite hard at this point and the more oxygen I can get in, the better. – Sole Man
  • Conserve your energy by shortening your stride
    I recommend taking a shorter stride and a quicker cadence when hill climbing. This makes hills a lot easier and less tiring, enabling you to run freely when you get to the top. Taking larger strides fatigues me quickly and makes my hamstrings ache for days! – Rach E
  • Different gradients will require different approaches
    Your technique should depend on the incline of the hill. If it’s really steep then it’s best to keep your back straight and your arms and knees pumping high. If it is a long steep hill then it’s often faster to walk. Rule of thumb is if it’s faster to walk then walk, as it will improve your time. For a gentler hill I tend to shorten my stride and focus on my technique, often actually speeding up my foot cadence to compensate for the shorter foot stride. Look upon hills as a challenge and a great training tool – they are great for endurance and leg strength. – Anthony Fryer
  • Give your legs an added boost by cross-training
    Since starting spin classes at my gym, my uphill running has massively improved. Now I find that on hills I often easily pass runners with whom I have trouble keeping up on the flat! I think that half the battle is in your head. If you can tell yourself as you're going up that "this will make me stronger" then you lose the fear factor. Now each time I come to a hill I tell myself over and over that "I'm good on hills", and it seems to work! – DTB, Cake Pimp
  • Find strength in numbers
    What's helped me enormously is joining a running club as I do my hill training with them. The camaraderie really keeps me going. The only other thing I would say – echoing the thoughts of others here – is slow down for them. If you push too hard you won't enjoy it and will give up. You can give 110 per cent or 80 per cent, you'll get fitter either way, but chances are you'll enjoy the 80 per cent more and be more likely to keep going long term. – Little Lizard
  • What goes up must come down
    It's only a concern because it’s an unknown quantity. As has been said already, it's mostly in your head. Most races finish at pretty much the same place, so you'll go downhill as much as you go uphill (though you might not notice it so much). The more hills you do the more confident you'll become. Practice makes perfect (well, perhaps not perfect...). – Mark Sleight
  • Make them a key component of your race-day preparation
    If I go on a longer training run I always include a big hill or two. You are cheating yourself if you don’t – when it comes to running in races you can’t avoid the hills. – 'sham plodder

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Discuss this article

Couldn't find anything on hills so am taking scarey step of starting new thread!

Please can anyone help? Have been training for 3 months now (following Cancer Research Beginners Programme), did 5k in June and now plodding towards 10k in September BUT I have a problem with hills!

Now that I'm up to an amazing (for me!) 12 mins at a time it's getting increasingly hard to find anywhere even remotely flat to run! My Cornish village is surrounded by hills and the only flat place is the playing field and I am in danger of dying of boredom if I have to trudge round there each time!

In one way apparently it's a good thing as I'm entered for the Lanhydrock race which is mega-hilly but it's really challenging for a little beginner like me to keep going on these hills!

Any advise please? Anyone else got the same problem (!) as me? Thanks!


Posted: 11/07/2007 at 14:10

The best advice I can give you is to take hills steady and just keep going. Slowly slowly catchy monkey!!
I used to be terrible, now I can get up them albeit slowly.
The achievement when you get to the top of a bl@@dy awful hill is great though. Justb think about that on the way up. And you may be rewarded with a downhill!
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 14:14

WCP: if you're running a hilly course and you're a beginner, completely forget your minute miling. Just keep going at the same effort level rather than speed....a heart rate monitor is a good way of judging effort aiming to keep it steady but you can just judge how you feel. This may mean that initially you are walking up the hill, but you will find that you find it easier and easier as your body gets used to it.

Good luck xx
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 14:15

The best advice

Well maybe not the best but you know what Im getting at!!!
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 14:15

WCP: i did the same route as you, did the 5k three years ago then lanhydrock 10k later in the same year. give the hill a go, i started by power walking them and then you can soon get to jogging. the main thing is keep going even if you have to resort to a fast-ish walk ... three years on i still have a hill problem but get to the top by jogging, doing snowdonia in october so going to be doing plenty of hills .... just keep plodding!
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 16:58

I never look up when doing hills. Hills are in your head more than your legs I find.
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 17:07

Try not to stop and gasp for breath at the top of the hill. If neccessary go even slower but keep going when you have reached the top.
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 17:36

taking them slowly is excellent advice. i'm a newbie too and at running club last night i was determined to keep running up the big hill and was overtaken by someone who had decided to walk - but it didn't matter, i still got to the top at the end.

not looking up is really good too, especially if you are on your own. i tend to keep looking down for 100 paces then look up to see how far i've got, then look down again etc. you always get there in the end whether you've run all the way up or run/walk.

and some days are better than others, just try not too mind (sometimes easier said than done, tho!)
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 18:07

sorry, that should have been in the end
Posted: 11/07/2007 at 18:08

i would agree with not looking up - on my last race there was a hill near the end which went on for over 1 mile, loads of people were walking but I was determined to keep going. In the end some people were passing me just walking, but I had such a sense of achievement when I reached the top that I didn't care my run up that hill was slower than some people walked.


Posted: 11/07/2007 at 21:01

Thanks everyone for your advice!

stoxy-thanks for the encouragement, you're right, the top is the best bit!
Fat Fyes-thanks, hadn't thought of it in terms of effort really, so will borrow a monitor watch next time!
b-oing - it's great to know that you've done the Lanhydrock run too! Is it true that the hills are as steep as they say??
Johnny Blaze-like the psychological approach!
Slugsta-does that mean I can't collapse in a heap and sit down when I reach the top?
runner duck & slow shuffle-well done both for keeping going! (A mile is a long way!)I shall think of you both as I plod away!

Thank you! ps do hills make you even hungrier, they do me!

Posted: 12/07/2007 at 10:09

Ahh hills, I hate them.

Posted: 12/07/2007 at 13:48

Hills are evil!!
I struggle with them all the time, even started to run round then rather than go up them!

alas this was cured when I joined my local running club, which is on top of a hill, so no matter which way you run back you HAVE to go up the hill.

the first time I made it up there without stopping I nearly cried I was so happy. From then on it was all in my head, I knew I could do it so just never stopped again.

New hills are worse though I always want to stop PMA PMA PMA!
Posted: 12/07/2007 at 13:55

I'm another who has no choice but to run hills if I'm ever going to get anywhere and I can well remember the feeling of elation when I finally managed to run up the steep hill out of our village that stopped me several times when I first started.

Just a couple of thoughts

Yes - definitely - to the comments about slowing down as you go up hill. I try to maintain a reasonably steady strides per minute rhythmn which means I also take shorter strides when going up.
Less sure about this 'don't look up' - you need all the air you can get when going up hill and looking down can result in you leaning too far forward which hampers your breathing. Try to stand up tall if possible but you don't need to focus on the top - break the slope down into manageable portions then target the next gate/lampost/tree/parked car/whatever.
Practice running downhill too - staying under control and protecting your knees once gravity has got hold of you is harder than it seems.

And keep track of your progress - its worth singling out one or two key landmarks on each hill and reminding yourself (in a few weeks time) that you've been able to get much further without 'dying' than you used to be able to manage.
Posted: 12/07/2007 at 16:27

WCP

I did the Lanhydrock 10K last year: yes, it is hilly! The thing is, there isn't just one, there are several. I gamely ran the first uphill section, jogged the next uphill bit, had just about recovered when a particularly horrid one came up at the halfway mark - I walked it! I just about managed the last uphill bit to the finish.

As other people have said, don't run them, power walk. Did a race last night (first since Lanhydrock!) and my friend and I overtook a few people who were bravely attempting to run a hill. My pace was actually better than Lanhyrock. So, don't exhaust yourself trying at this stage. Oh, and I am running at Lanhydrock again this year, so it can't be too bad.
Posted: 12/07/2007 at 21:32

Thanks guys!

I think that a good approach would be, then, to just go for it, not to worry about speed, to go steadily, think positively and not to stop at the top!

JTO - just how many hills are there at Lanhydrock? I'm feeling increasinly daunted, I must say, but it's good to know that you'll be suffering alongside us! Was it a good atmosphere last year and were there lots of quite serious runners there? Oh, and do you have a really bright blue t-shirt to wear?


Posted: 12/07/2007 at 22:02

Hills? What's them then?? :-)
Posted: 13/07/2007 at 13:34

Don't be afraid to walk the hills if you need to.
I have walked on hills and passed people who are still 'running'.
Walking is actually less effort than running and it uses the muscles differently so you get a rest going up hill ready for the top and running again.

Colin
Posted: 13/07/2007 at 13:49

Hills R Us!

I love hills! I'm in a similar situation - big hill to get out of the village - and spookily a big hill to get back.

I only started running in April with a friend, we choose the positive attitude that we love hills. The main benfit - did RFL in Barnstaple on Sunday and smashed our PB as it was flat! :O)

It's taken until this week to be able to get up both hills without stopping - but we got there! Of course, now it's been done, it can't be undone.

We take the slow "walking in the running style", head down, don't look - approach.

Also doing Lanhydrock in September - see you all at the top!
Posted: 13/07/2007 at 20:38

WCP

I wouldn't say there are lots of "hills", just a few uphill sections. Don't be daunted, just enjoy it. The atmosphere is great, exciting and moving too. There were some "serious" runners, but just as many new/fun runners.

I was seriously worried when I went last year, my training stalled about three weeks before, but I got round and you will too. I started at the back, but didn't finish at the back - there are plenty of people who will walk long sections.

Yes, I do have a lovely blue t-shirt, but this year I will be wearing a wicking fabric so as not to look like beetroot wrapped in a soggy rag at the end of the race!
Posted: 13/07/2007 at 20:51

I thought I enjoyed hills although after today am not quite so sure. I did a 10K over Dartmoor, the Haytor Heller, in the rain and mud and there were some proper hills there. Really enjoyed the race although struggled, as usual, coming down the hills and was not quite my usual self going up hill. Think I need to work on going downhill and perhaps ought to invest in some new running shoes and perhaps get some with better grip for some of the cross country races. I have a bit of fear of running too quick downhill in case I can't stop and tend to hold myself back which I'm sure isn't good. Will write today off as a bad day at the office and find another road hill tomorrow!
Posted: 15/07/2007 at 22:44

Hi Dommer - that race sounds really impressive, esp if it was raining there as much as it rained here yesterday (and we're probably not that far from Dartmoor) and well done for doing it! Maybe that's the trick, just to keep going and to try your hardest!

Guys out there doing Lanhydrock this year, whereabouts are you planning to start the race? Started in the walkers at Eden 5k which was too far back but don't want to be too near the front either!
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 09:35

Hi guys

I've pinched this question for this week's Reader to Reader so look forward to reading more of your tactical tricks...

Thanks

Catherine :o)
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 17:05

I absolutly love hills, this is where my advantage in races is. I'm not faster, stronger or fitter, I just know that everyone struggles uphill, so if I relax and enjoy uphills I'm better off than everyone else. I used to mountainbike and this link sums up my mentality as I imagine I'm like the first biker (mint sauce)http://homepage.mac.com/pfellows1/thisiswhy/Images/Calendars/1997/97july.jpg
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 17:15

What is everyones fear of hills? They are one of the best bits of a run!

Best bit of advice I can give is technique depends on the incline of the hill.

If really steep then best to get those knees up back straight and keep pumping arms and knees high. If it is a long steep hill then often faster to walk. Rule of thumb is if its faster to walk then walk as it will improve your time. Walk fast though ;-)

If it is a longer less steep hill then I tend to shorten stride and focus on technique. Often actually speeding up my foot cadence to compensate for the shorter foot stride.

Look upon them as a challenge and a great training tool! Do hill sprints, they work great for endurance and leg strenght. Soon hills will be your friend.

Posted: 16/07/2007 at 17:45

Lucky you having so many hills!

I run up to the Ridgeway regularly so get my fair share of hills in in training.

I really recommend taking a shorter stride and a quicker cadence when hill climbing. This makes hills a lot easier and less tiring, enabling you to run freely when you get to the top. Taking larger strides fatigues me quickly and makes my hamstrings ache for days!
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 18:05

two things i do to make the longest of hills easier is to get your breathing deep and steady but not too slow.now the scientific bit'i also run keeping my feet close to the floor as if your just kicking them along thus fighting less against gravity its effective and you feel like youve got something left when reaching the summit ull be surprised how quick it is
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 18:23

I absolutely hate hills with a passion, bet you I hate them far more than anyone else on this forum!!! ;-)

What's helped me enormously is joining a running club and I do my hill training with them. The comeradery (excuse spelling!) really keeps me going.

The only other thing I would say, echoing the thoughts of others here is slow down on them. Maybe keep an eye on your heart rate if you wear a heart rate monitor? If you push too hard you won't enjoy it and will give up. You can give 110% or 80%, you'll get fitter either way, but chances are you'll enjoy the 80% more and be more likely to keep going long term.

Good luck!
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 22:13

Practice on hills by turning the into reps. Run up until you need a break, then turn around and walk/jog down until slightly recovered. As long as you never walk back to where you started running (if you see what I mean) you'll get a great workout, and the hill will seem less daunting every time you do it.
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 22:29

Went on another run today after my exploits on Dartmoor yesterday and managed to fit in a couple of gentle hills. It's a bit difficult running around Exeter without them. Coped much better today and actually had a good 5 mile run.
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 22:44

Good for you Dommers!
Posted: 16/07/2007 at 23:12

Since starting doing spin classes at my gym my uphill running has massively improved - now I find that on hills I often easily pass runners that I have trouble keeping up with on the flat!

I think that half the battle is in your head, and if you can tell yourself as you're going up that "this will make me stronger" then they lose the fear factor?

Now each time I come to a hill I tell myself over and over that "I'm good on hills", and it seems to work!
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 11:01

not saying I'm uber fast, just that I'm happy on most hills now :-)
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 11:10

I disagree that running around (avoiding hills) is a luxary. There is nothing more rewarding and exhilarating than running up to the crest of a hill and looking all around at beautiful views and to glance back down at what you have achieved.
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 12:16

WCP, well done on completing your first 5k. It's a great feeling! With regard to hills I have just the same problem - I can't go for a run at home without going up and down them and when I first started running there was no way I could get all the way up any of them in one go.

I persevered and would run up them as far as I could and then walk the rest of them. Gradually the amount I could run increased until I could run all the way up and that was a marvellous feeling.

Don't beat yourself up if you can't always run up them as you can have off days even as a more experienced runner. One tactic I employ is to focus on a point about 15 feet in front and run towards that, then as I pass that point I focus on another point 15 feet in front and so it goes on. I don't look down as I find this interferes with my running form and I don't look at the top of the hill because I think that can sometimes be too daunting.

On particularly steep hills it can help to pump your arms (if you know what I mean) to help push yourself forwards and shorten your stride.

You also need to practise running downhill as that can be as tough as running up them. The trick is not to hold back too much as that puts a lot of pressure on your pelvis. Try to keep your body upright and in-line with the surface you're running on. This means you are in effect leaning forwards slightly and then let the momentum carry you.

You'll find that eventually you'll come to love those hills as they give you great stamina. Good luck with your training and enjoy your first 10k.
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 15:22

Ah... I was just going to comment that no one had mentioned pumping arms, then Redhead beat me to it. It's bizarre but concentrating on pumping arms really seems to help.

Other than that, go slow and keep going. Even walking keeps that momentum up.
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 16:02

hi,

re looking down when running up hills. as i've said i do find this a useful technique but other people's comments re body position are correct. it is important to keep your head and chest up and just drop your eyes to the road about 10 feet ahead and not let them stray up to the top of the hill and weep ;-)
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 16:32

Personally I prefer to look up the hill as it keeps my windpipe open. I'm normally puffing quite hard at this point and the more oxygen I can get in, the better.
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 18:14

Hi,
I agree very much with DTB. If I think along the lines of "this hill is hard, so i will be getting stronger" instead of "this hill is hard, i'll give it a miss next time" it can spur me on.
Obviously this can sometimes be hard to put into practice but i think its worth a try.
Happy hill running...
Posted: 17/07/2007 at 19:12

I approach hills like a challenge. I drop down a gear, shorten my stride & slow down, head down and keep going. I will not let a hill beat me, and if I have to walk I make sure it is a brisk pace, which is often quicker and more efficient than running.

Using the mentality of 'its going to make be a better runner' is a good motivator.

The terrain you are on can make a big difference though. On roads you know there aren't going to be any traction issues - so you just grit your teeth and keep on plodding. Off-road you need to look a few yards ahead constantly to pick out the best line....where its less slippy (look for grass or fallen leaves - avoid wet mud).

Only way to improve is to get out there and run up hills, pushing yourself - it will hurt, but you will improve!

Running downhill?.......well thats a different forum in itself!
Posted: 18/07/2007 at 10:16

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