How Hill Training Can Make You a Better Runner (Plus, Tips for Getting Started)Sep. 12, 2022 - Katie McCallum
Most runners try to avoid hills. Logging miles on flat land is challenging enough.
But hill training can benefit any runner, especially endurance runners training for a race or marathon.
"Don't be afraid of hills, they're great for training and can make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner," says Dawn Stuckey, athletic trainer at Houston Methodist. "You do need to be cautious with hill training, though — making sure you're starting out slow and doing it correctly."
Hill training builds endurance and makes you quicker
Hill training is when you add a few short stints of running on an incline each week.
"Since running uphill challenges your body more than running on flat ground, hill training improves your cardiovascular system and builds muscle strength," says Stuckey.
This benefits your overall fitness, including your cardiovascular endurance — crucial when you're trying to add more mileage.
"It also improves your speed and agility," says Stuckey.
Stuckey recommends every runner add hill training to their routine, but suggests it most ardently for those preparing to run a half marathon or marathon.
"If your race has hills, you definitely need to incorporate hill training as part of your training plan," says Stuckey. "This is true even in Houston, believe it or not. Our races have a few hills here and there, especially routes that follow Allen Parkway. You'll want to be prepared for this."
Hill training can also help reduce the risk of running injuries
"Working your leg muscles by running on an incline is really beneficial for building strength in your quadriceps, hamstring and glute muscles," explains Stuckey. "When these muscles are strong, you're at less risk for developing a running injury."
(Related: The 6 Most Common Running Injuries & How to Prevent Them)
She adds that hill training is also a great way to mix up your running routine. And variety brings some important benefits.
"Not only does this help make your workouts less monotonous, it's another way to prevent injury," says Stuckey. "When you're working your muscles in a different way, you reduce the chance of overuse injury caused by repetitive exercise."
8 tips for incorporating hill training into your training routine
Why you should hill train is one thing. How is another. It's a bit more complicated than finding a hill and running it, after all.
Fortunately, Stuckey has plenty of experience with hill training — and expert tips.
1. Establish a good fitness base first
Before tackling hills, Stuckey stresses the importance of building a fitness base.
"Especially if you're new to running or just starting out training for a race, your first couple of months should be focused on establishing a good running base," says Stuckey. "Get to where you can run three to six miles at a good pace going before you add hills."
2. Start on a treadmill if you have access to one
Whether you're new to hill training or starting up again after a hiatus, Stuckey recommends starting on a treadmill.
"With hill training, you want to be patient and build that strength slowly — and a treadmill is a great way to do that since you have a lot of control over the incline," explains Stuckey. "Increasing by just a few percentage points of incline each week is a great way to slowly and safely work in hill training."
She adds that climbing stairs, however, isn't a good substitute for running hills.
3. Your whole run shouldn't be uphill
Hill training doesn't mean your whole run involves hills.
"We're looking for repetitions of running on flat land and then incline, not to constantly be running uphill," says Stuckey. "For instance, if you're planning a 6-mile run, incorporate six sessions of hill training into it by running uphill for a quarter-mile and then finishing the rest of that mile on flat ground. Then repeat five more times."
4. Don't sprint
"Most people tend to want to barrel through a hill, burning through so much energy in the process that it takes a while for your body to recover once you hit flat ground again," says Stuckey. "That's not the goal of hill training."
Instead, you want to maintain the same level of effort running uphill as you do on flat land. Your heart rate will increase a little with the incline, which is good — it's a sign your body is working harder. But it shouldn't skyrocket, according to Stuckey.
"If I had a really hard hill in front of me, I'd rather walk up the hill to keep my heart rate relatively the same rather than running and increasing my heart rate tremendously," adds Stuckey.
5. Shorten your stride
Another tip that can help keep your effort constant as you tackle a hill: Shorten your stride.
"You may need to make a conscious effort to do so," says Stuckey.
6. Make time for hill training once per week
If you're training for a race, Stuckey recommends incorporating hill training every week.
"If your training plan has you running four times a week, make sure one run has some hill training," says Stuckey.
She adds that not every run should be hill training, though.
"The goal is to go slow and add some incline each week," Stuckey adds. "After about six weeks, you'll definitely have improved your strength and speed. Just be patient with it."
7. Have a plan before moving outdoors
"Once you feel comfortable with your incline training on a treadmill, you can head outside," says Stuckey. "The tricky part, though, can be finding a suitable area for hill training — especially in Houston."
For help with hill training in Houston, Stuckey recommends joining a running club that organizes hill training sessions or asking running buddies for hills they might recommend.
"You're not looking for a mountain," says Stuckey. "Even just the slight incline of a bridge will do, though you'll want to look for one with a pedestrian sidewalk. You can also try hill repeats — running up the incline, down the other side, going a little bit further and then turning around and repeating the whole process."
8. Stay safe while running on hills
A few safety tips from Stuckey:
- Watch out for wet grass
- Don't sprint downhill — jog lightly
- Avoid steep hills that prevent you from gripping the ground properly
- Choose sidewalks over roads
"You really want to be sure that the incline isn't affecting your form," Stuckey warns. "Moisture and a hill that's too steep are examples of things that can make maintaining proper running form challenging. This is something you want to avoid."