Learn How to Crush Hills

Want to improve your efficiency and up your running confidence? Head for the hills.

I started my running career in Boston: Home to Heartbreak Hill, arguably, the most famous hill in the running community. (It even has a running store named after it.) I’d dread every Thursday night when I’d take the T out to Woodlands with my running club to suffer through the last third of the Boston Marathon. We’d hit Heartbreak Hill and then the remaining few miles back to the city. With time and practice, I learned that conquering hills was a vital part of improving my run game and eventually started to embrace them. When my focus shifted from the road to trails, I realized that simply running hills wasn’t enough. I needed to learn to master—and love conquering—them.

The terms King of the Mountain and Queen of the Mountain (KOM and QOM) are common nomenclature to the running world. Some races even offer awards to the runners with the fastest times up a certain hill within a race. Some races are even made up of only hills. (The general rule of thumb for the 7.6-mile race up Mt. Washington is to expect your half-marathon time.) Practicing hills properly, and knowing how to attack them during a race, can get you closer to the KOM or QOM crown.

Ultrarunner and Miles to Go Endurance head coach Ryan Knapp uses hill workouts for all his athletes. “It’s a great strength-building tool for any aspect of training, whether it be in the bulk of your training plan or sharpening up for a race.” In other words, hill workouts are speedwork in disguise. I recently talked with a couple a couple coaches and ultra running experts to get their advice on the best way to get over the inclines. Whether for bragging rights, a hill workout, or a personal best, follow these pro tips to help become more vertically inclined.

Swiftcurrent, Montana | Photo: Trail Run Project contributor Michael Faist

Perfect Your Stride

Coach Knapp emphasizes the importance of hills to improve stride efficiency. “It’s [almost] impossible to over-stride [or take too big of steps] while running up hills,” he says. If you’re prone to injury from over-striding (think: knee joint pain or IT band syndrome), you’ll be able to get used to what proper form feels like even on a one- to two-percent incline. Keep your cadence quick. Your knees should always stay behind your toes, and your feet need to land evenly.

Stand Tall

The pitch of the ground will naturally make you want to bend forward at the hips. Coaches often instruct runners to “stand tall,” but another trick is to imagine you have a lasso around your waist and someone is tugging you back from your torso. This will keep your glutes engaged and “un-hunch” your lower back. There’s a lot of core work here.

Keep your neck straight. Look forward. Not at your feet.

Engage the Right Muscles

Running up an incline properly requires a hip drive, which means you should use your hip flexors to drive your knee straight up and forward [instead of off to the side],” says Knapp. “Then, power through the bottom of the stride with your glute muscles.” (Need a visual? Check here.) Your glutes are some of the biggest muscles in your body, so using them is key. Avoid lifting your leg with your hamstrings. You’ll be able to feel the difference when you’re accessing the right muscles. [Insert “pain in the butt” joke here.]

Embrace a Mantra

Staying upright will help keep your chest open and allow your lungs to expand fully—as opposed to slouching into the vigorous huffing and puffing. Ultra runner and coach Greg Soutiea suggests using a mantra or mental cue when running up hills. “A deep breath, a big hand clap, or even a phrase to tell yourself as you start up an incline can keep your mind in the game and minimize the fear of a hill,” he says. “Breathing deep and staying calm is key to conquering hills, as opposed to gasping for air and going up reckless abandon.”

Throw in Some Extra Prep Before a Race

If you are training for a specific race, it’s important to practice similar hill lengths and grades as the course’s terrain to help you mentally prepared for how to handle yourself and what to expect. Coach Knapp’s advice on the matter is to know exactly when a hill is coming up. You should study the elevation chart and familiarize yourself with the course you’re about to race. If the hills are the beginning or middle of the race, hold back some energy on the inclines. If you go too crazy, you risk being crushed for the rest of the race. The more you practice tackling hills, the better you’ll know exactly how your body will feel at each point before, during, and after the ascent.

As you hit an incline, your cadence naturally starts to quicken, your heart pumps faster, and your lungs beg for more oxygen. The bottom line? Nothing will make hills easier, but if you practice, maintain good form, and stay mentally focused, they’ll be a little less painful and you’ll conquer them in no time.

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