Hill Running Tips

Hill running can be the backbone or backbreaker of your race strategy.  From Cross Country racing to marathons, hills are the test of a runner’s true mettle.  But when you conquer a hill, you have won an inner battle.  As Walter Bagehot said, “The greatest pleasure in life is doing the things people say we cannot do.”  Here are some tips from some of the running world’s greatest mountain masters, Max King and Brandy Erholtz, as reported to Lisa Jhung in Running World.

We also consulted with Jim and Phil Wharton, of the famous Wharton performance model.


The Whartons advise you to know your course so you are not surprised.  You will feel more mentally prepared and perform better.  As you approach a hill, check your shoulders.  Are they beginning to creep up to your ears?  Do a few shoulder rolls forward and backward to relieve any tension, then hunch them up to your ears, drop, and relax into their proper place.

Good Form is essential to mastering hills.  Breathe in through both the mouth and nose and exhale through the mouth for maximum oxygen exchange whenever you run.   Cross country coaches often advise to pump your arms faster when going up a hill.  “I once had a coach tell me that if you keep moving your arms, your legs have to follow,” says Brandy Erholtz, “so I focus on keeping my arms moving.” Lean slightly forward.  This shortens your stride, keeping the center of gravity underneath you for maximum power.  Keep your head and eyes focused ahead about 20 feet, not down and not up to the top of the hill.  If you hunch at the waist, muscles in your lower back and hamstrings will be strained.  Think tall as you run uphill.  Max King says that “Hill work is speedwork in disguise,” and recommends running fartleks on hills during a midweek run.  He also recommends Pilates, Yoga, or Plyometrics to strengthen your core on rest days. This will help you engage and strengthen your muscles utilized during hills during a race.

Hill Running Tip #1—Go off the road.  Taking a trail through the hills will allow you to develop coordination, strength and focus.  Find a course similar to what you will face in your upcoming race.

Hill Running Tip #2—Run or Walk?  Ultramarathoners recommend walking for short bursts and if you feel that a hill is beyond your energy, stride briskly up it at a walk and resume running as you crest the hill.  Erholtz feels that it is harder to “mentally switch to a run, if you stop to walk.”  King also “doesn’t like to walk” but acknowledges that when it is faster to walk than run, “check your ego at the bottom of the hill” and do whatever works to get you to the finish line first.

Hill Running Tip #3—Mental Toughness   The greatest runners break a hill into segments and focus on reaching each landmark.  Some recite quotes, poetry or phrases that motivate them.  Erholtz uses “I think I can, I think I can….” For me, hills are a mental challenge.  If I already plan to power stride up a hill and burst into running at its crest, I feel empowered by my plan.

Hill Running Tip #4: Effort not Pace with Smaller Strides

Keep up the same effort as you head up the hill, but not pace.  Shorten your stride and pump your arms faster.  If you keep the same running pace, you will tire quickly, building up too much lactic acid in your leg muscles. You may run the fastest up the hill, but then will be too worn out to finish the rest of the race.  Remember, going uphill is like climbing stairs.  Taking two steps at a time is much harder than one step at a time.  Small, fast steps will help you conquer the mountain.

Hill Running Tip #5: Speed up at the summit

Don’t relax and slow down at the top of the hill, even though you are dying for a rest.  Push through a little longer by accelerating your pace at the crest of the hill.  The recovery process will start immediately and rid your legs of excess lactic acid.

Hill Running Tip #6: Downhill—is the fun part!  Focus on gliding down the mountain, landing on the ball of your foot.  It may feel a little uncomfortable at first, so practice until it feels natural before the race.  Ball-striking will also help improve your running cadence.


Here are three hill running workouts to incorporate into your training to build strength, endurance, and mental toughness.



Hill Running Workout #1: Threshold training

Run at 90% of maximum effort.  Run uphill for 1 min, run downhill for 1 min. That’s one repetition. 12-18 repetitions. This workout will build muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance.


Hill Running Workout #2: Hill Striders

Sprint or stride as fast as you can up the hill for 30 – 45 seconds. Jog or walk back to the starting point.  Repeat 8-12 series.  This is a very effective speed and endurance workout that also improves mechanical efficiency.  Use this on a rest day in your normal training cycle.


Hill Running Workout #3: Crest Runners

The first two workouts help you conquer the hills; this one will train you to run beyond the top of the hill when the natural inclination is to slow down a bit. Think of speeding up as you crest the hill and keeping the same pace as you fly down the other side.

Run uphill 30 – 90 seconds (find a hill that you can reach the top of in that time so you can crest it), increase your speed as you crest and then run downhill for 30 – 90 seconds at the same speed. Repeat 8 to 12 times.


With these hill training tips and hill running workouts, you can break the “heartbreak hills” in your next race. Good luck!