How to train for a hilly race – the exercises and training plans to help you stay running strong

how to run a hilly race

The best way to do well in a race with lots of ups and downs is to climb and descent regularly during your training. “Instead of doing a speed-focused training schedule, it makes a whole lot more sense to focus on hills,” says running coach Janet Hamilton.

If you almost never run hills during a normal training week, seek them out once per week: find a hill that will allow you to climb for about 60 seconds, and run it a few times during a midweek run that’s longer than your shortest recovery runs.

Related: 10 of the best hill training workouts

Once you’re comfortable with that, you can progress to a route with longer and/or steeper climbs, says Hamilton. Then, you can start adding some hills to your long runs – warm up with a few flat miles, run a few miles on rolling hills and cool down with several more flat miles.

How to run hills:

It might sound obvious, but according to Hamilton, “a lot of people don’t really grasp how to run hills. They go into attack-the-hill mode.” This will leave you fatigued and breathless at the top, and will waste energy you’ll need later in your run. Instead, work on maintaining an even effort going uphill – as you do on level ground – even if your pace slows.

Tune in to how you are breathing at a comfortable pace on the flat stretch leading up to the hill, and try to maintain that rhythmic breathing as you climb. Keep the same cadence and upright posture: “You just push off with a little less emphasis”, says Hamilton. Then, if you decide to do race-pace work on hills – which is a good idea if you have a time goal in mind – you can practise averaging an even pace despite climbs and descents by maintaining the comfortably hard effort level you associate with half-marathon race pace.

How to run downhill:

Another one that might sound obvious, but maintaining the same effort when you tackle the downhills is also important. Land lightly and increase your leg speed a bit to allow gravity to carry you to a faster pace than you’d run on the flats. Don’t let your feet slap the pavement or try to break with your quads, “think about not riding the brakes” says Hamilton.

A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed that when runners trained on ascents and descents, they improved speed and foot turnover more than when running up hills or on flat surfaces alone. Running downhill requires the muscles to lengthen, or make eccentric muscle contractions, which can generate more force than when you’re running uphill or on flat ground.

5 moves to help you run stronger on hills:

1. Squats

how to run a hilly race

Why: Squats work the glutes, hamstrings and quads.

How: Holding dumbbells and with your feet shoulder-width apart, shift your weight to your heels as you lower into a seated position. Keep your eyes forward and descend until your hamstrings are parallel to the ground before you stand back up. Do 25 reps at a controlled pace.

2. Step up

how to run a hilly race

Why: Develops powerful quads for stronger hill climbing.

How: Holding dumbbells, place your right foot on a box or step. Drive your weight into your heel as you step up. Squeeze your glutes at the top and step back down in a controlled manner. Repeat with the left foot. So 20 total reps, alternating legs.

3. Deadlift

how to run a hilly race

Why: Strengthens glutes, hamstrings and calves for stability on downhills.

How: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Bend at the waist and knees and pick up a pair of dumbbells. As you rise, pinch your shoulder blades together. Lower down, tapping the dumb-bells on the ground before standing again. Do 25 reps at an even pace.

4. Forward lunge

how to run a hilly race

Why: Builds strength to help you maintain form.

How: Stand tall, holding dumbbells. Step forward with your left foot, then bend the left knee until the hamstring is parallel to the floor. Your right knee should be just above the ground and your left knee behind your toes. Step up and repeat on the other side. Do 20 reps, alternating legs.

5. Sideways lunge

how to run a hilly race

Why: Works the glutes and the quads (the quads are the primary muscles used when you’re running uphill).

How: Holding dumbbells, step to your left, bending your left knee until your hamstring is parallel to the floor. Push off the left foot and return to the starting position, then repeat on the right. Do 20 reps, alternating legs.

The hilly half-marathon training plan:

This plan is for intermediate runners who are already logging a minimum of 25 miles per week, with a long run of at least eight miles:

hilly half marathon training plan

Related: Half-marathon training plans for every kind of runner 

How to read the plan:

Strides: Do six to eight 20-30 second accelerations postrun.

Long run: Run at a comfortable pace.

Effort hills (gradual): After an easy warm-up, run repeats on a gradual hill, maintaining a comfortable effort as you climb and descend. Cool down to complete that day’s distance.

Effort hills (steep): The same as the gradual exercise, but find a more challenging hill.

Runs with race pace: After at least a mile of jogging to warm up, run at goal pace. Jog a mile to cool down.

Pace hills: During your warm-up, gradually ramp up to race pace. Then, hold that effort on a mix of hills (slowing on climbs, speeding up on descents). Cool down at an easy pace.

Long with hills: After a few flat, easy miles, seek out serious hills. Maintain a comfortable effort level as you climb and descend. Finish on flat terrain.