(No, I’m not referring to MTV’s The Hills. Long live the drama of LC, Speidi, Justin Bobby, Audrina, Kristin and Brody!)
I am referring to so many runners’ arch nemesis: elevation. While we see hilly terrain more frequently in certain parts of the country than in others, we are all inevitably going to run into hills at some point. I used to despise hills with every fiber in my body. Three years ago I moved to a new apartment that sat atop a massive hill – it was about .75 miles long and pretty steep, especially at the top. I did whatever I could to avoid that hill, but beyond the hill were a lot of good areas to run. I attempted to run the hill many times, but was resigned to walking by the end. I finally put my head down and decided that I was going to do whatever it took to conquer that hill, and along the way picked up some tips. Today I actually look forward to hills, and I promise with the right mindset so can you.
Lean forward and take shorter steps. Leaning into the hill will help you maintain balance, as will taking smaller steps. Expect your stride to be smaller when going uphill. You may even feel like you’re shuffling your feet a bit. You should also feel it in your calves – you will be using them more than you do on a flat run.
Put the watch down. I listed this rule for two reasons. First of all, when running uphill you want to base your pace on exertion, not time. You will not run uphill as fast as you will on a flat distance, especially when first learning to love hills. It can be discouraging to look at your watch or running app and see that you have slowed down considerably, but that is normal. Don’t let your pace dictate how fast you should make it up the hill or you will end up walking and exhausted. Just listen to your body.
Another reason I want you to not worry about the watch is because when you’re going through something that is mentally tough, it’s sometimes better to disconnect from numbers. Just put on your favorite running song and zone out to it!
Do not, I repeat, do not look at the top of the hill. If you look up at the top you can easily get discouraged. I still have to remind myself of this trick if I’m on an especially difficult hill. Most of the time you want to look ahead when you’re running, but I have found that hills seem to be easier when you are more focused on what you are currently doing than on what more you have to accomplish. Just look at your feet and the ground in front of you and try not to glance to the top of the hill too often.
It’s all downhill from here! Training downhill is just as important as training uphill, because your body is using different muscles for uphill, downhill, and flat runs. Running downhill is considerably easier than running uphill but there are still a couple things to keep in mind. Maintain a tall posture while running downhill – now is not the time to lean forward. Just stand as upright as possible. It’s easy to let yourself go completely while running downhill but you want to make sure you are in total control of your body, regardless of how fast you are going. Some runners try to go faster downhill to make up for the slowdown they incurred running uphill. I have found that if I try to maintain my same level of exertion, I will naturally run faster on the downhill slope.
I know hill workouts suck, especially if you are new to them. I promise incorporating hill workouts into your routine will make you a stronger runner, plus you never know when you will encounter a hill in a race. At my last half marathon, I got a little surge of pride at one point in the race when many people around me had stopped to walk. I didn’t understand why until I realized that we were going uphill, slightly. Because I had been training on more than just flat land I was completely prepared for this little bump in the road (don’t mind the pun – I couldn’t let it go). I try and run a hilly route once a week or so. I don’t live at the top of the big hill anymore but you can bet if I sign up for a race that has a reputation of being hilly, I will make my way over to that side of town to train properly.
Hills can be a great training tool, and once you get used to them, they can even be something you enjoy. Picking a hilly route can break up the monotony of a longer run. I certainly encourage you to try them out!