The Hills are Alive…

I always marveled at how easily Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music ran around those Alpine hills. Whether she was swinging a guitar or throwing edelweiss into the air, she never broke a sweat. Even walking those hills had to be a lot of work, regardless of your age. How did she make it seem so easy?

There are times when the hills seem to be alive, but more with the sound of taunts and bullying than with anything resembling music. You look straight ahead and all you see is hill. It makes you want to look straight down and not look up until you get to the top. Your heart is pounding, your legs hurt and it doesn’t seem it will ever end.

For many runners, a world without hills would be a glorious place. No hill work to focus on. No interruptions to a perfectly paced outing. No struggling up an incline. However as Columbus and other explorers determined centuries ago, the world is not flat. It bumps and rolls along and has little regard for a runner’s knees or conditioning. Some places are more flat than others. And some places are nothing but hills. You can work very hard to avoid them, but eventually the hills will find you.

Listen to any group of runners describing a race. Within the first few minutes, there will be a mention of how hilly (or not so hilly) a course is. It is the benchmark for how tough a course is.  There are always heated discussions about which race had the most elevation and how tough that made things.

But what makes hills so hard? It is basic physics. Moving up any incline, whether you are cycling, in your car, or running requires greater energy to work against the pull of gravity. Any time you are “lifting” yourself up and away from the pull of gravity, you will burn more energy than if you stayed on a constant level plane. Once you reach the top of a hill, you can now release that energy and sprint to the bottom because you are working with the pull of gravity. So the steeper the hill, the harder it is to get your body up it.

If hills are so frustrating, why do them at all?  For the workout they give you! Even if your races will have little elevation, hill work is an excellent training tool. It compresses a lot of training into a small amount of time. It is a form of resistance training. And it will build up your leg muscles faster than running on flat surfaces will. It will make those flat races feel like nothing, and those hilly races much easier to run.

If you aren’t used to running on hills, the key thing to remember is to MAINTAIN your EFFORT. Your effort should feel the same going up the hill as it did when you approached it. This may mean you have to “slow” down, but remember that the hill has added a degree of difficulty. You should not feel yourself huffing and puffing on your way up.

I would often equate it to using the small gears on a bike. Yes your feet spin twice as much, but the effort is not increased while you try to get to the top. It takes a bit longer, but you aren’t out of breath. Make sure you are not swinging your arms across the center of your body. Move them back and forth, almost as if you have hiking poles in your hands.  If the hill is steep, you can bend slightly forward from your hips. Never “assault” a hill-the hill will exact its revenge before you get to the top if you do not take it easy.

Find a good hill to practice on once a week.  Any height will do, but the steeper the hill, the more intense the workout will be. A short hill is preferable-but long hills will work, too. Start with one interval and add another one each week if you feel they are getting easier.


Run up the hill at a moderate pace-it should not make you feel breathless, but should feel like you are working a bit harder than if it was flat.

Gently run back down hill as your rest interval. That is one rep. Repeat again. Do an additional rep each week until you get up to 8 reps.

Getting back down…

Now that you understand how to run UP a hill, what do you do to run down one? Running downhill hard and fast is dangerous for beginning runners and veterans, too.  The key is to REDUCE YOUR STRIDE LENGTH and INCREASE YOUR CADENCE/NUMBER OF STEPS. Simply put, it is making a lot of very fast, short steps. You want to reduce the time your feet stay on the ground. It reminds me of those cartoons where a character is trying to escape and all you see is a blur of their feet.

We will be running a LOT of hills this summer. Raleigh and the surrounding area is not particularly flat. You can often find “flat” courses in the area (Tobacco Trail, Neuse River, Crabtree Creek), but if you are up for the challenge, hills will make you a stronger, faster and better runner. Even if you have to walk up them at first, by the end of the summer, you will be able to look that hill straight in the eyes and say, I am NOT afraid of YOU!


How to Run Hills Properly

Benefits of Hill Running

Physics and Treadmill Running

Hill Running: The Kenyan Way

Runner’s Worlds Hill Articles-Lots of excellent articles here


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s