As a general rule, the four horsemen of training are (in no particular order) distance, speed, weather, and terrain. Amongst these are all sorts of sub-categories of challenges. Distance holds with it fatigue, nutrition, and a host of others. You get my point. Most runners train to reach a goal in one of two horseman. They either work on speed or distance. No one trains for specific weather unless they are running an extreme destination race. Likewise, most runners do most of their runs on flat terrain. They only train hills when they are told to do so by their coach. However, most races have at least one hill. The world isn’t flat, after all.
I remember the first time I ran a marathon. It was the 2009 Portland Marathon. I never thought about flat versus hilly; I just ran to train. The Portland Marathon was mostly flat, though I was warned that there was one big hill - the dreaded ramp up to the Saint John’s Bridge. My friend who had run it in the past said, “Yeah. Don’t even try and run that. You’ll just use up too much energy. Just walk it.”
So I did, that year and the next. Both times when I walked up that incline, I saw other runners passing me at a steady pace. I never caught up to them. Not that I cared about my place in the race, but it can be demoralizing to get passed. Plus, going up that hill HURT each time. And it hurt to start running again at the top. I had only trained the flats. This was my wake-up call to actually train hills.
I began doing hill repeats, as many of us do, while mostly intentionally training on flat terrain. However, at some point, I began to realize that trails – which are loads of fun – are rarely flat. Most excellent views come at the top of a long climb. Plus, once you climb a hill or mountain, you get to BOMB DOWN IT. This is – let’s face it – a big why many of us run.
Since then, I have really learned to love hills. I don’t just do hill repeats, I run hilly runs intentionally. I seek them out. I look forward to them. And if you run with me very often, you will know that I always tell everyone else how much I love hills.
Step 1. Learn why you should love hills
The biggest key to learning to love hills is attitude, attitude, attitude. If you complain all the way up them, I promise they will hurt worse. However, if you have a positive attitude about running them, they can be fun. Thus, the first step is convincing yourself that you SHOULD love hills.
Why do I love hills, you ask? Well, let's face it. Most races, whether on road or trail, have hills. If you decide to run trail, you will run an absolute overabundance of hills just getting from Point A to Point B, or maybe you’ll run just one super long and steep hill. Hills are a part of running, so it’s a really good idea to get used to them and accept them as part of your running routine.
I also love hills because they make me a stronger and better runner. They make your legs, lungs, and heart stronger. If I train hills, flatter runs are more pleasant, and hilly runs are less of a burden. Sure, running hills stretches your abilities and your comfort zone. However, running hills also uses a different set of muscles than flats. When you run hills, you actually get a bit of a break from the muscles that get sore on flats. However, the biggest reason that I really love going uphill is the downhill that has to follow.
I’ve listed a few of the benefits I see in them. If these aren’t enough reasons to get you to love going uphill, make a list of your own reasons to love going uphill. Remind yourself of it often. Attitude is really the key to learn to love hills.
Step 2. Start small
You don’t have to do hill repeats up and down Mount Finlayson until you drop your first time out. Likewise, you don’t have to run up every hill.
Start by finding small hills that you can add to your run. Run the first few steps up, maybe 20. Walk the rest. Next time, run the first 25 steps up. Increase as you are able. When I do this with friends, we count the steps out loud. The hills will get easier if you keep trying. I promise.
Eventually, this really wonderful thing happens where the hills don’t look as big or as steep as they used to. They start to actually APPEAR flatter. Take note every time this happens and realize this is a sign of progress.
Step 3. Seek hills out
Once you actually get comfortable adding a few hills here and there begin to try and find them. Instead of running your daily route on flats, run it on the hilliest area you can find once in a while. The more often you run them, the easier they will get. Remember to accept them as part of the route instead of cursing about them. Keeping your attitude positive will make them so much more pleasant.
Step 4. Practice, practice, practice
Part of efficiently running hills is knowing what works for you. Do you run faster uphill, or is it better to speedwalk? Is there a certain grade at which your run becomes more efficient as a walk? How quickly can you run up? How does your effort change when you push down on your legs as you go?
Hike hills. Run hills. Hike them weighted. Run up them and hike down. Hike up them and run down. Hike both ways. Run both ways. Run them as hard as you can and then collapse into a pool of noodly bits.
Don’t overdo it to the point that running hills ruins your training. However, do remember that the more hills you run the stronger you will get. This will make your flat training runs more pleasant.
Do NOT forget to practice your downhills as well. Hill repeats on treadmills that cannot do a descent are great for training going up. However, remember that, as pleasant as going downhill is, it’s so much harder on your body than going uphill. Your quads will be very upset if you forget to train your downhills but suddenly need to run a lot of them.
Step 5. Invite friends along, but don’t allow complaining
Hiking mountains, running hills, and training the ability to get to the places with the terrific views is always more fun with friends. It is a great idea to plan to bring friends along to learn to love hills. However, you should remember that bad attitudes, as well as good, are contagious. I have one rule about running hills – do not complain. It’s okay to suffer. It’s okay to hurt. Just keep it to yourself so you don’t plant the seeds of doubt and despair in everyone else.
When hills gets tough, the rule usually is that we talk about how much we love them. As silly as it sounds, it makes them much more pleasant. It also makes them much easier.
Written by Deb Kennedy - Mom, Wife, Ultra Runner
When Deb’s twins were born in 2005, she decided that she would be a pretty terrible soccer mom, so she packed her bags, and moved to Oregon, where she discovered the beauty of trail running and the unsurpassable comradery of trail sisters. Amazingly, the twins felt they needed a little sister, so, one day, Deb turned over a trillium during a run, and then there were three. We all know that’s how it works.
These days, Deb can be found in Cobble Hill, with her husband – who she married because of his clean-shaven cycling legs and clever wit – and three tweenage daughters. She is proudly a middle-aged, undertrained ultrarunner. Deb frequently refers to ultras as “organized days in the woods with snacks.” She can occasionally be found at the back of the pack during a race. She claims this is mostly because the back of the packers have better stories and snacks.