Reader to Reader: Running Hills

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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