So you’d like to take up running, but you live on a mountain. Or maybe you already jog in a nice flat place, but want to tackle some trails or a hilly race. Here’s how to train your mind and your legs to power up even the steepest slopes.
Walk The Hills
This is my first tip because it is the most versatile one, and you can put it to use today. Go out for that hilly run, but when you get to a hill, just walk it. You’ll get up the hill and, if you walk fast, you’ll still be giving yourself an aerobic workout. Mission accomplished.
Does this seem like cheating? It’s not. Anything that helps you run longer, farther, or more often is a training tool. Trail runners and ultramarathoners often plan to walk as part of their strategy for long races and steep hills.
As you get better at hills, keep this strategy in your back pocket for occasional use. Maybe you can run up half the hill and walk the rest. Maybe you’ll run the first nine hills and walk the tenth. Better than staying home to protect your pride, right?
Take Small Steps And Use Good Form
When you’re ready to tackle hills, there is a right way to do it. You might have a vision in your head of a strong runner powering up hills at full speed, but you don’t want to sprint up and be any more exhausted than you need to be. (Don’t totally lose that vision, though — imagining yourself meeting challenges with strength is a powerful tool.)
But the reality is that you have to step a little smaller and use slightly different form than when you’re running on the flat. You’ll slow down; that’s the reality of running hills, no matter how easy some people make it look. Here are the important points:
- Take tiny steps. Keep your feet moving in the same rhythm as on the flat, and keep your effort level the same (so you aren’t breathing any harder). That means each step needs to be smaller, and you may only feel like you’re moving a few centimetres at a time. It’s OK, though: since your effort level is the same, you can keep chugging up the hill without getting tired.
- Pick up your knees. You need to lift your feet higher to take that next step up the hill, while pushing off with your back foot. Focusing on high knees helps you keep strong form.
- Don’t bend over, and don’t look down. Standing tall makes it easier to lift your knees, drive from your hips, and keep your centre of gravity over your feet. If you tend to bend at the waist when you’re tired, slow down (remember tiny steps) and remind yourself to stand tall.
- Change your focus. If you’re tired, it can help to focus on moving your arms (because your legs will follow), or angle one hip toward the hill so you’re running slightly sideways. (Switch sides every now and then). You can also spend a few seconds or minutes on each of the above form tips, going through them like a mental checklist.
With good form, hills become more of a doable chore than an insurmountable obstacle. The more you run hills, the more comfortable you’ll feel on them.
Run Hill Repeats
That’s right, you’re going to pick a big scary hill and run it more than once, on purpose. Many runners dedicate a workout to hills every week, or at least a couple of times a month. Consider an alternating schedule: designate a speed/strength day that takes the form of speedwork one week and hills the next. Here are a few ways you can train on hills:
Long hills: Pick a moderately steep hill that’s long enough you can run up it for a minute or more. Before you tackle the hill, go ahead and warm up by running an easy 5-10 minutes on flat or comfortable ground. Run uphill for 30 seconds, then walk downhill and keep walking for a total of 2-3 minutes before starting the next repeat. (You can also do longer repeats; see the chart here for suggested times.) Bring cones or designate landmarks so you don’t have to measure the distance every time, but can turn off your brain and just run from cone to cone.
The first time you try this, aim for four repeats, and remember to go easy enough on the first repeat that you’ll have enough energy left for the other three. Add a repeat every workout until you’re running 8 or more.
Short hill sprints: These are quick, but can be tough on your body, so don’t be too eager to do a lot all at once. Try them at the end of an easy run. Pick a hill, the steeper the better, and sprint up at top speed for 8-10 seconds. Take a minute to walk and recover, then do it again. Two of those are enough for your first day. Over time, build up to 10 in a row. Here’s some more information about building hill sprints into your training program.
Stair climbing, like on stadium bleachers, isn’t a true hill workout but can give you some of the same advantages: you’re still working your lungs and legs, but can’t adjust your stride the same way you would outdoors. This is a great alternative if you live in a flat part of the country, or if the weather is bad but you know a good indoor staircase. (Pittsburgh’s 36-floor Cathedral of Learning, for example, is a popular workout spot for runners and hikers.)
Hill training can also benefit your running on the flat, because it builds endurance and makes you practice good form. Remember about standing tall and picking up your knees? The muscles that help you do that on the hills are also valuable for overall running form.
It also, of course, helps on hills in real life. When I ran the Pittsburgh half-marathon, I was pretty pooped around mile 11, but perked up after a water stop and suddenly got confused: how is it that I’m running but everyone around me is walking? It took a moment to dawn on me: oh, this is “that big hill at mile 12” everybody was talking about! Thanks to my hill repeats, I’d barely noticed it.
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