Training Tips

6 Essential Hill Running Tips to Prepare for a Hilly Race

When it comes to hilly races, there are runners who tear up the hill and then there are those who run fast and pass everyone on the downhill. Who has the better hill-running race strategy?

There’s no one-size-fits-all secret. How you should handle a hilly race depends on who you are and how you run. That means that the best way to finish on top, or at least to finish strong, is to follow the mantra, “Train your weakness; race your strength.”

“I, for one, am a speedster on the downhills,” says running coach Andrew Kastor, of Mammoth Lakes, California, who created the official ING New York City Marathon online training program. “I have too much mass to lug my 170-pound frame up ‘poop-out hill.’” On the other hand, Deena Kastor, Olympic bronze medal marathoner (who also happens to be married to Andrew), “is probably one of the best hill runners in the world. She can climb up a grade, especially at altitude, like no other woman I know.”

Catering to your strengths is only part of the equation (you knew it wasn’t that easy). When it comes to hill running, you also need to train your weaknesses so you can hold your own throughout a race.

Here’s how:

Overprepare

Training on a course similar to the race will help you figure out how to manage your energy through the ups and downs. “In 2004, I had the pleasure of being there for every step of training for Deena and her U.S. Olympic marathon teammate Meb Keflezighi as they prepared for the Athens Olympic Marathon,” Kastor says.

The Athens course was the hilliest of any Olympic marathon before it. Deena and Meb’s coaches devised a running route they would run weekly that consisted of the most brutal hills here in Mammoth Lakes (at 8,000 feet altitude). The theory was to train on a course that was much more difficult to challenge the mind and really be prepared for any little up or down grade on the course. This hill training proved successful, as Deena took the bronze medal and Meb grabbed silver.

Use Hills To Build Efficiency

“Hills force you to have good mechanics,” says Todd Weisse, cofounder and head coach at the Williamsburg Track Club (Brooklyn and New York City) and a volunteer assistant coach at Columbia University. “You need to be up on your forefoot and your center of gravity has to be under your torso. To run hills efficiently, you have to use your glutes, your quads and your hamstrings. You need to push from the hip and use your entire leg to get up that hill.” You should run this way on flat terrain, too. Running hills just makes good form happen more naturally.

Embrace The Hills

“For my runners, I call hills ‘challenges.’ That’s all they are,” says Joe Whelan, a coach for Team in Training and Kezar Road Runners in San Francisco, where, as he says, “hills happen.” His recommendation: “Embrace them instead of avoiding them. You can make something that might be your weakness your strength by not avoiding it.” 

Train For The Downhills, Too

Watch that you don’t lean back on the downhills, Whelan says. When you do that, you’re braking and reducing your speed. “And it puts a large amount of pressure on the joints and quads,” he says. “Instead, let the hill take you down it.” Your form should really look the same no matter what terrain you’re running on, Weisse says. Can’t get the hang of it? Try this tip from Kastor: “Try to run very quietly. This will minimize the impact forces of your feet striking the ground.”

Let The Downhill Make You Faster

“Imagine you’re on a bicycle, and use the downhill to gain momentum on an uphill to come. If you use the ground forces correctly, you can have a little momentum up that hill,” Weisse says. 

Know Where To Pass And Be Passed

“If you can climb like a mountain goat, then redline your heart rate going up the hills because the speedsters are going to come after you on the descent,” Kastor says. “I always try to make back the time that I lost on the uphills, and for some, it’s the other way around. Pick the best [hill-running] strategy for you and your physical and mental strengths.”