A blog by runners. For runners.

Expert advice on hill running

A hill our writer, Rob Haneisen, runs regularly. Hills are difficult for any runner, no matter your skill or fitness level. Learning how to run them safely and using their challenge to your advantage is something learned by trial and error – or better yet, from the experts.

We talked to the following four certified running coaches and seasoned runners about what works with hill running, what doesn’t, and why every runner can benefit from adding hills to their routine. Below you’ll get the highlights from that conversation but if you want to read the full transcript (and become a hill pro yourself) you can find that here.

  • Albert Dell’Apa from Toronto, Canada is the distance running coach with Raging Bull Road Runners in Toronto, Canada. 
  • Denny Krahe from Lakeland, Fla. helps runners that run with pain kick their injuries for good & experience the joy of running pain free. Coach | ATC | CSCS.
  • Angela Bekkala from New Hampshire is a Certified RRCA Running Coach, an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist (CES), and blogger at Happy Fit Mama.
  • Meredith O’Brien from Virginia Beach, VA is a USA Track and Field Level I Coach, Crossfit Endurance Coach, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, and owner of FitNicePT.

What are the main benefits to running hills?
In a word: strength. Running hills makes you a stronger runner both physically and mentally.

“Hills are speedwork and strength training in disguise,” Bekkala said.

Running hills will also give you an advantage over other runners who shun the challenge.

“I always hear other runners moan about the hills during races, and I just smile and power through them because I’ve already done the work,” Krahe said.

Plus, hills are something you can – and should feast on. All that pain and effort will pay you back.

“Hill training is really the  ‘superfood’ of distance running training,” Dell’Apa said. “Various types of hill training can enhance stamina, endurance, speed, strength, and even form. Hill training has been well documented to also improve the strength and elasticity of tendons and ligaments. “

How often should runners run hills? And what kind of hills?
Frequency of hill running really depends on what you are training for – long, gradual hills provide a different kind of challenge than short, intense hills.

“Running a long, gradual hill can increase strength, ankle flexibility, and reduce neuromuscular inhibition – leading to better coordination,” O’Brien said. “Sprinting a short steep hill will help build power and decrease neuromuscular inhibition, making it easier to run hard and fast.“

Regardless, our experts iterate hill running is a tough workout so don’t do it more than once a week – even every other week would be enough.

And don’t forget the importance of downhills and maintaining your form there.

“When you’re running down hill, let gravity do the work,” Krahe said. “You might feel like you’re running too fast, but as you practice it you’ll learn to keep your strides shorter and speed up your turnover so you’re really accelerating down the hills at your next race.”

What if you don’t live near hills?
“The incline portion of parking garages and bridges are always a great outside alternatives to actual hills,” Bekkala said. “If you really are stuck, running stairs or setting a steep incline on the treadmill will work the same way.”

Sometimes you can substitute hill work “off-road.”

“Strengthen your muscles for hill climbing with weight training and increase ankle stability by balancing on one bare foot with your eyes closed,” O’Brien said.

OK, what if you are surrounded by hills?
Sometimes we all need a break – especially when coming back from an injury. Hills, usually a source of strength, can come back to bite you so if you live in a particularly hilly area, take note.

“Find some flat areas, even if that means going to the high school track and running laps,” Krahe said.

Running on nothing but hills can lead to ankle, foot, and knee problems.

“Try to find at least one route that is less hilly to use a few times per week,” Bekkala said.

When running hills, is there a part of running form that is most important to maintain?
Our experts all agreed it’s about posture and control when it comes to running form for hills.

“On the uphill portion of the hill, runners should try and lean forward slightly at the waist into the hill and really drive with the arms to propel themselves forward,” Dell’Apa said. “Really try and get up on the front part of the foot and drive with the ankles using shorter strides. Coming downhill, again, it is really important to maintain control. Lean forward slightly if possible to use the hill to your advantage and open up your stride. Depending on the size and steepness of the hill, you can put your arms out slightly to the side for better balance and control.”

Is there a body type or type of runner that is better at running hills?
“Runners with good muscular strength in their legs are generally the best at hill climbing,” Bekkala said.

But all the experts said anyone can learn to run hills.

“It’s all about practice and preparation,” O’Brien said. “Being strong and mobile enough to put power into the ground while maintaining good position and posture is the most important thing.”

Prepare for that hill!
Dell’Apa has a four-part strategy to systematically breakdown hills:

  1. The approach: As you approach the hill, gauge it and get a sense of how long the hill is. Try and determine the amount of effort needed for the climb.
  2. The climb: Using good form and consistent effort, work through the uphill portion of the hill.
  3. The crest: Work through the top of the hill, trying not to slow down when reaching the top of the hill. Particularly in races, runners will be relieved to have made it to the top and will slow down. Moving through the crest will give you an advantage, physically and mentally. Expend your effort accordingly, factoring in pushing through the crest of the hill at the top.
  4. The descent: Again, really controlling the downhill, opening up the stride and leaning forward slightly.

Don’t avoid hills because they are hard. That’s giving up the battle before you have even begun to fight.

Read the full interview transcript here.