(get) over the hill


A running friend of mine moved from relatively flat Philly to a hilly locale across the pond in the UK. She requested some tips on running hills. (Miss running with you, Noelle!)

Hills can be your friend or your foe. It all depends on how you look at them. Whether you are specifically training for a hilly course like the Boston Marathon, you want to improve your running form, or you want to become a stronger, more balanced runner, incorporating hill workouts into your training can help you achieve any and all of these goals. Running uphill also strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. I think hill workouts are especially important for masters runners, because you get a lot of training bang for your buck. It's one type of workout where you can quickly reap the benefits.

Running hills is 90% mental

 That time I won a 5K – a killer hill loomed at the end of the course. I was ready for it.

That time I won a 5K – a killer hill loomed at the end of the course. I was ready for it.

First things, first, hills are one situation where I think the mental almost always trumps the physical. Mention hill workouts to most runners, from newbies to elites, and you'll witness dramatic eye rolls and hear groans. Why are hills so hated? So dreaded? So maligned? 

Negativity begets negativity, Likewise, positivity begets positivity. Try changing your mind set. Try approaching hill workouts with gratitude, not attitude. Because if you give the hills some love, they will love you back. 

I can honestly say that I enjoy hill workouts. Last year, when I ran the Cherry Blossom 5K, the race organizers cruelly changed what had been a relatively flat course and added a steep, killer hill right at the end. But I prepared for it. I did hill sprints at the end of my long runs on tired legs on "the Jawn," an infamous hill here in Philly with a 12% grade. It looms at the grand finale of the ODDysey Half Marathon and falls just about in the middle of the Philadelphia Marathon. Runners tend to try to avoid it. Not me.

And guess what? I won that 5K. At age 50. The women who came behind me in 2nd and 3rd place were 27 and 25. I remember seeing the hill toward the end, which was probably an 8% grade and .4 mile long, and telling myself I had done hill repeats on a steeper hill. I would not say I was flying up that hill, but I passed many a young and nimble runner who decided to or were forced to walk. I was absolutely shocked when I learned that I'd won.

There are endless hill workout recipes, some of which I'll cover in upcoming blog posts. Today, I'll focus on hills more generally and how they can help you become a better runner. 

Hills improve your running form

Hill workouts are beneficial for so many aspects of running. One of the easiest ways to improve your running is to work in some hill sprints at 5K pace. You don't have to do many to see results. You can also do them on a treadmill. Just jack up the incline to 7-8%. Start with 4, 1-minute hill sprints and jog or walk back down the hill to recover. Work your way up to 8 repeats. 

In terms of form, you need to lean into the hill slightly – which comes naturally. Don't bend at the waist.  Your arms also need to do a fair amount of the work when scaling a hill. Don't overthink it. Your body actually knows what to do. 

When I was running up "The Jawn" at mile 13 of my first half-marathon (I was not prepared for the hill!), some woman on a bike who was watching the race started yelling to me, "Dig in! Dig in!" I don't know who she was, but she helped me navigate that hill. That verb has stuck with me all these years. Often, when I am doing hill work or I'm facing a hill in a race, I tell myself to "dig in." Try it, and see if it helps. Or find your own hill mantra. A few suggestions: "I love hills." "I am tougher than this hill." "This hill is temporary."

And remember, what goes up, comes down. At some point, there's got to be a downhill.

 You can do short hill sprints on hills, treadmills or even ramps, such as this one on Schuylkill Banks in Philadelphia.

You can do short hill sprints on hills, treadmills or even ramps, such as this one on Schuylkill Banks in Philadelphia.

Hills improve your aerobic capacity

Once during a long run, I suggested to my running partner that we work in some hills. She protested, "But the marathon I'm training for is completely flat. Why do I need to do hills?"

Because it's better to be over prepared than underprepared.  And one of the easiest ways to improve your aerobic fitness is to regularly run hills. Simply put, it takes more exertion to run up a hill of a certain distance, say a quarter mile, than it takes to run the same distance on a flat. Regular hill work will help prepare you, regardless of the terrain of your goal race.

Running hills makes you badass...

... Or more specifically, training on hills develops mental toughness and redefines your baseline of "difficult." Being prepared for the worst makes the difficult seem easier. 

When I was preparing to run the Boston Marathon, for example, I was terrified of the hills, the sagas of which had reached epic status. All those war stories about Heartbreak Hill and the Newton Hills had me shaking in my sneakers. So while training, I made sure to work a grueling long-hill segment into my weekly long run. In addition, I did hill sprint repeats on and off during the week.

My friend Shanae and I ran up the 17% grade on Leverington Street or the slightly less-steep but longer continuous incline on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia many times. In an attempt to simulate a course neither of us had run, we also ran one long run before the taper starting on a steep miles-long downhill and finishing with a "jaunt" up Leverington. 

In the end, it paid off. Although the 2016 Boston Marathon fell on a crazy-hot day, and not many people who ran PRed, both of us felt that the hills were no big deal and were hugely over-dramatized. Many people walked the hills but we didn't. After the race, I learned that the grade of Heartbreak Hill is only 4.5%. Compared to a 17% grade, you can see why we remained nonplussed. 

So why not try working in some hill repeats into your training? Don't run around the hill. Get over the hill...and you will reap the benefits.


What's your favorite hill workout?