Running Tips: Hills

Training to improve your hill running…

Adding a gradient to your runs will significantly increase your oxygen demand.  Even gentle hills will make your heart, lungs and muscles work harder than the same pace on a flat, even surface.

Hill running is a type of interval training

Even if you slow down a little, most hills will send your heart rate up, pushing you towards your limit of your aerobic system.  Running up the hill can push you into anaerobic work (short bursts of intensive work without oxygen), while running down the other side allows you to recover back to your aerobic energy system.  Hills are a natural interval training session!


Benefits of Hill training 

  • Increasing your aerobic capacity (as explained above)
  • Improving physical strength – hill running requires more power and strength than running on the flat.  On uphill sections your muscles contract more powerfully than usual because they are forced to overcome gravity to move you up the hill.In particular, the quadriceps (front of your thighs), calf muscles and glutes (butt muscles) all have to work harder and become stronger to cope.This extra strength will then make you even better on flat courses where you’ll experience less muscle fatigue and a greater sense of resilience.
  • Learning rhythm – learning to keep your rhythm steady when hitting a hill can make your rhythm even better on the flat courses
  • Mental strength – Conquering a hill (or a flight of stairs!) is a very satisfying feeling.  It will give you greater confidence to try new and more demanding routes.
  • Enjoyment – Ok, humour me here, once you’ve developed some hill fitness you may actually start to enjoy the challenge and reward.  I love nothing better in my running training than hitting a huge flight of stairs and challenging myself to run it a set number of times.  (You might need to wait a few months for the enjoyment to kick in!)


Technique – How to run hills

You will need to employ a different technique to hills than you use for flat running.


As you start uphill, shorten your stride. Don’t try to maintain the same pace you were running on the flat. This will exhaust you and leave you depleted later, when you can least afford it. Take “baby steps” if necessary, and try to keep the same turnover rhythm as on the flat. Your posture should be upright, however some runners find that leaning slightly forward into the hill is helpful.  (Experiment to find out what’s best for you).  If your breathing begins to quicken, this means you’re either going too fast, over striding or bounding too far off the ground.
You should use a light, “ankle-flicking” push-off with each step, not an explosive motion. (This wastes energy.) You may like to try kicking your heels up a little to help.  If the hill is long or the grade increases, keep shortening your stride to maintain a smooth and efficient breathing pattern. Run “through” the top of the hill. That is, don’t crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back on your effort. Rather, accelerate gradually into the downhill. Gravity is now on your side.
Don’t worry if you’re slowing down going up, just reduce stride length accordingly. Continue to shorten your stride when the grade is steeper, and extend to normal as the grade eases, all the while maintaining steady effort and breathing.


Most runners make one or two obvious mistakes when running downhill. They either sprint, which causes severe muscle soreness later on, or they’re so hesitant to surrender to gravity that they’re constantly braking, which fatigues the quadriceps muscles. The optimum pace is somewhere in between. Try not to let your feet slap on the ground when you are running downhill. Step lightly and don’t reach out with your feet. Slapping can be a sign of weak muscles in the shin area, in which case you need to strengthen them. To help your downhill technique, follow these simple tips:

  • Try to visualise gravity pulling you down the hill.
  • Try to maintain an upright body posture, keeping your torso perpendicular to the horizontal.
  • Keep your feet close to the ground for maximum control, and land lightly.
  • As you increase your pace, emphasise quicker turnover rather than longer strides, though your strides can be slightly longer than normal.
  • The key to efficient downhill running is to stay in control. When you start, keep your stride slightly shortened and let your turnover increase. When you feel in control, gradually lengthen your stride.
  • If you start to run out of control when descending, shorten your stride until you feel you are back in control again.

Downhill running should be relaxed and fluid.


Safety note
It is very important to warm up thoroughly before hill sessions, and not to do them too often.  Once a fortnight is generally enough.  Remember though this will depend on your experience, your running fitness and if you are carrying any injuries.  Stretching is of vital importance because your calves (particularly the soleus – just above your achillies), hip flexors, and glutes all work much harder.


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