Before moving to Colorado running hills was pretty foreign to me. For the most part in Arizona unless you are trail running the city is pretty flat. When I’d sign up for races in other states where the courses did have hills, it was always a little bit of a shock to my body. Currently I am living in an area that is surrounded in every direction with hills and trying to find an area to run on that is flat for more than 1/2 a mile is a struggle. When we first moved to Colorado almost two years ago, the hills came as quite a shock to me. I had to watch my times drop and not get completely frustrated with it. Along with the hills came the dramatic change in elevation. I went from running at an elevation of 1,398 feet to 5,820 feet, trust me when I say running in altitude is a huge adjustment and even after nearly two years the thin air still leaves me winded after running up hills.
I’m not going to lie, there are some days that I absolutely hate all the hills and long for a flat area to run on. It’s hard for me to get an accurate sense of what my average pace is on my runs when there is so much up and down action going on. Recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that the hills aren’t going anywhere and neither am I so I better just learn to accept them and embrace the burn that fills my lungs and legs when I run up them.
I’ve started to research and experiment with techniques both physical and mental, because running up a hill takes almost as much mental strength and focus as it does physical. Below are some tips I have found helpful when it comes to hill running.
Keep Good Form: It’s very easy to let your form get sloppy when you are running up a hill. I am still working on my form, but it has definitely improved over time. Try to keep your body straight and upright rather than leaning forward and being in a hunched over position. If you are leaning over too far you are putting more stress on your lower back and hamstrings. As a person with a chronically tight lower back and hamstrings muscles I know when my form has gotten sloppy because I can feel a lot more strain in those areas. If you are hunched over running up a hill you are also limiting the amount of oxygen your lungs can take in, and I think we can all agree that you need as much oxygen as you can get running up hills! Taking a shorter stride seems to work better for me as well. Rather than trying to take long strides up a hill and risk pulling a muscle, I keep my strides shorter and work on having a faster turnover. Finally, make sure your arms are moving back and forth and not just hanging tensely at your sides, keeping them moving is just as important as keeping your legs moving.
Break the Hill Up Into Sections: Applying this method to my hill running has been a huge help! I never run up hill and focus on the very top I find it to be too frustrating and by the time I’m half way up I feel mentally defeated and my mindset goes from positive to negative instantly. Instead I break the hill up into sections. I pick out several landmarks depending on how long the hill is and focus on getting to those points. By doing this I’m creating smaller and more attainable challenges and in a way it becomes a game. Once I reach that first landmark I give myself a mental pat on the back then get right back at it and start working on getting to the next landmark. Making it to each landmark gives me satisfaction as well as a little more drive to get to the next one.
Breathing: Do it and do it in a controlled manner! It’s so easy to let your breathing get out of control when you are running up a hill especially if you are already running at a high altitude. Our body’s response to running up hills is to take shorter quicker breaths. However, it’s important to focus on taking deep breaths and keeping them in control. You’ll run the risk of hyperventilating as well as giving yourself a side stitch if you let your breathing get too rapid and out of control.
Strength Training: In general running hills will make you a stronger runner. If you want to improve your speed, efficiency, and form on the hills though, strength exercises can greatly help. I do some sort of stability and strength training every day whether it’s at the gym or at home. Having strong hips, quads,hamstrings, glutes, abs, and back are all important to becoming a better hill runner and avoiding injuries. I like to incorporate exercises like lunges, squats, single leg squats, clams, leg lifts, bridges, planks, and side planks into my post run routine. Plyometrics are also extremely helpful, but we’ll dive into those another day.
Staying mentally tough and focused is key to being able to conquer hill running. Hill running will always be a challenge and I doubt I will ever say it is easy, but applying all of these tips to my training has made running them more doable and far less frustrating!