A blog by runners. For runners.

Run to the hills: hill exercises


When I trained for the Philadelphia marathon in 2011, my first marathon, I made an epic playlist; a bouquet of ballads, classics, rompers, and deep album cuts. Of course, there were a few clichés, too. Springsteen’s Born to Run and, appropriately, Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Nowbetter known as the Theme from Rocky. As soon as I heard the opening trumpets, I thought of Rocky Balboa’s iconic run up the 72 stone steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I attracted curious glances from bystanders as I proudly shuffled through the streets, punching the air before me.

On any given day, you can see countless people, in running gear or street clothes, charging up the same steps, vicariously living the silver-screen magic. To Rocky, climbing those 72 steps symbolized the completion of his training; his transformation from a has-been to go-getter.

With good reason, we use “steps,” “hills,” and “mountains” as metaphors for life’s many challenges and obstacles. Running up a hill is tough, and it requires more energy than running on flat terrain. It can provide you with the same mental boost and physical reward as accomplishing a difficult task.

So why do hills get such a bad rap? That’s obvious. They’re hard! Running is hard, life is hard. We often connote hills with displeasure, agony, and pain. Hills make us obsess, commiserate, complain. But if we avoid the difficult, we become complacent. And complacency does not lead to improvement.

Summon your inner adrenaline junkie.
One of my favorite hill workouts mimics a roller coaster; it includes steep climbs, swift descents, and requires a sense of adventure.

Map it out. Find a route of 3 to 6 miles (or even longer) over rolling terrain. This may include country roads, city blocks, etc. Your route may be a loop or an out and back. What’s important is that it includes frequent elevation changes throughout.

Going up

  • After a mile warmup, approach your first hill at a moderate tempo pace. Keep short, quick strides. Dig with your arms.
  • The faster you move them, the faster your legs will follow. As you begin your climb, maintain the same effort, not the same pace. Keep your back straight, chest wide and open so you can get maximum oxygen to your lungs. Keep your head up and look towards the top of the hill.
  • Once you climb two thirds up the hill, drive harder up the final third; dig deeper with your arms. During a race, many runners, fearful of losing valuable seconds, make the mistake of keeping the same pace up the hill. They often reach the top feeling tired, heavy, and, thus, unable to use the downhill to their advantage.

At the summit

  • Power through the flats at the same, hard pace. Avoid that nagging urge to slow down; ignore the hot lead building in your thighs.

Going down

  • Keep a quick cadence.
  • Land on your forefoot to avoid jarring your knees. Drive through the first third of the downhill. Using gravity to your advantage, you should be able to build momentum quickly and get your breath back before you reach the bottom.


  • As you transition from the descent to the flats again, keep the same effort. Your pace will slow, especially when you begin your next climb, but make sure to drive hard again up the final third of the next hill.
  • Continue the effort for the duration of the run. Since there is no formal rest, your body is forced to flush out the lactic acid and recover on the go. Make sure to cool down and stretch, since the constant elevation and speed changes target and engage a wider array of running-specific muscles.

Consistency is key.
Pace is not as important as effort. With a consistent effort, your slower pace going up will average with your faster pace going down, which should equal a hard, quality effort. Repeat this run on a weekly basis and compare your splits, (dis)comfort, and attitude.

After a few weeks, you may begin to replace some of those ugly connotations with bright ones. At the very least, you will develop a deep reserve of physical and mental strength. You may even look forward to your next roller coaster!

Written by Stephen Marcin.

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