Training and racing on hills

The following is an introduction to hill training (both uphill and downhill) and is not intended to be a complete discussion of the topic.

About me: I am the race director of races on relatively flat courses (gently rolling at most).  I am a certified endurance running coach. I am a runner who trains all summer in Sedona, AZ (only hills). I am a long distance hiker (last long trek was two weeks through the Alps with a backpack). I am a former professional alpine skier.

As you can imagine from the last three statements, I spend a lot of time on hills, and not just occasionally training on them. In fact, in the summer I spend almost four months on hills without any flat ground training, even during long runs.  I love it (not so much when I’m actually doing it, but I love the results)!

Even if you live in a flat area like the Jersey Shore there are hills around if you look for them.  For example, in Monmouth County, I have done lots of hill work in Holmdel Park and in Hartshorne Woods in particular.

There are a number of good races (5Ks to half marathons) in NJ that have hills in them.

Why train on hills when most of the races aren’t very hilly?  Because they are great places to train to get stronger and faster and they provide more good training in a shorter amount of time  than on the flat (not necessarily for long runs but for other types of training).  If you want to get stronger and faster, hills are a good choice and in my opinion a good way to keep a training plan fresh.

OK, so how should training on hills be done?


Beginning runners and runners/walkers:  Don’t do them yet.  You need to build a base of miles run during which your body will make the necessary and normal adaptations required.  This base building phase should last for at least 3-4 months.  You can and should enter races during this time to get familiar with race day and to use them as a way to measure progress.  These races should be at an easy pace (you should be able to hold a conversation while running – take walk breaks if you need to).

Intermediate runners and runners/walkers: Start slowly and build slowly. For example, as a starting point: after a 10-15 minute warm-up jog do 1 set of five, seven, ten and twelve second easy uphill runs (see the posture and effort level below) and walk back down to recover.  If your still feeling strong after the twelve second run, rest a minute and do them all again. Finish with a 10-15 minute cool-down jog.

Here’s how to progress:

The 2nd week: repeat the start plan (above) a couple of times,

The 3rd week: after a 10-15 minute warm-up jog  do 2 sets of 10, 15, and 20 second easy uphill runs (see the posture and effort level below) and walk back down to recover. Finish with a 10-15 minute cool-down jog.

The 4th week: repeat the 3rd week plan.

The 5th week: repeat the 3rd week plan and add two 30 second easy uphill runs (see the posture and effort level below) and walk back down to recover. Finish with a 10-15 minute cool-down jog.

The 6th week: after a 10-15 minute warm-up jog  do 2 sets of 20, 25, and 30 second easy uphill runs (see the posture and effort level below) and walk back down to recover. Finish with a 10-15 minute cool-down jog.

Here’s my best advise regarding posture: look up (not at your feet – keep your head up either level or slightly up), run tall, bend forward slightly at the ankles, take short quicker steps, keep your arm swing more compact.  Practice pushing off from your toes to move upward (it feels a bit like bounding up the hill).  Please note: This can tire your ankles and calves (don’t do it if you’ve been having calf or heal pain –  in fact don’t do them at all if you’re having pain in your lower legs – unless you get the OK from your PT).

Here’s the part which so many people don’t do:  go up the hill at a speed which feels ABOUT the same effort level as you were feeling prior to the hill (YES, that means that you are going to slow down as you go up the hill).  It will likely feel harder on your legs but it should NOT make your heart race and you should not get out of breath.  Slow down a bit if that starts happening to you.

Some of you may ask how will I ever get faster doing that?  Good question!  Running by perceived effort is a good way for many of you to train because as you get more fit you’ll automatically be running faster to maintain the same effort level!!  BTW- that applies to training during your long runs also.

Advanced runners and runners/walkers: If you haven’t already incorporated hill training into your training schedule, you should start relatively conservatively also (although at a higher level than an Intermediate would).  Maintain your good posture and start with four to six 30 second uphill repeats (walk or jog back down to recover).  Add 5-10 seconds to the uphill portion each week.     You should not let yourself get completely out of breath at the end of your run up the hill. At the top of the run your breathing should be labored and your legs will likely feel heavy.  If that didn’t happen to you then add speed to your next hill repeats until you get to that state and can maintain it for the entire workout.

Let’s start with those uphill training thoughts so that this doesn’t get to be too much info all at once.


Now, on to the fun part,  the downhill!  Sure, I just told you to slow down on the uphill part (feel like a similar effort to the flat), and now I’m planning to tell you to go fast on the downhill part.  It’s free speed! Why not take advantage of it wherever possible, even on small inclines like the ones on the Long Branch Half Marathon and New Jersey Marathon courses?  They are they, just look for them.

Please note: Downhill running can cause injury if done incorrectly or repeatedly.  Don’t plan on doing repeated fast runs downhill. I suggest that you find the most relaxed way of running downhill without pain.  “Relaxed” is the key word, and have some fun doing it at the same time.  My fun is putting a bit of excitement into that part of the run/race, yours may be something else.

Remember those short quick steps that I mentioned in going up the hill, use them again on the downhill sections.  Now, as a skier I’m used to pushing my hips forward a bit in order to stand perpendicular to the hill as it tilts away from me, and so should you when running down the hill.  If you’re not used to that feeling it can feel a bit strange, but what I’m really asking you to do is to stand in the same posture as you would when running on the flat.  Really!  It just feels like I’m asking you to risk falling on your face as it’s a new feeling perhaps but I’m really not asking you to run on your toes, just on the middle of your foot.

BTW – You will not likely make up the time which you lost in the uphill section, but you will make up a good portion of it if you go as fast as you can down the hill.  Remember, there is lots of good training effect from running downhill properly also.  Different muscles will be used and they will be used more than normal.  Less time, more results!  What’s not to like?

Pay attention to your posture as you practice running down the hill.  Keep you feet under your hips (don’t lean back and push your fee out in front of you (over stride) in order to stay at a slow pace down the hill. If you try to apply the breaks with your quads, heels and knees you will trash your quads and knees on the downhill sections, especially if it is a long downhill or if there are a number of them!  If I feel constant tightness in my quads on the downhill that’s when I know that my form is off and I need to push my hips forward a little more in order to get back into my normal stance (stop resisting the speed).

One other important thing about the downhill training portion is that as you increase the number of steps you take each minute you will be training yourself to change cadence during your run.  A faster cadence will increase your speed.

I have to admit that I am sometimes a bit uncomfortable with the amount of speed during my downhill sections and especially during the first few weeks of my run and my bike cross training in Sedona, but that’s how I know that I’m doing it right.  BTW – even when going fast down the hill, if I breath normally (don’t hold my breath), I can get in quite a bit of recovery during the decent (both running and biking).

Speaking of training, if you cross train on a bike, make sure that you’re increasing your cadence to 90-100 rpm (stay out of the hard gears and get those feet moving quickly).   Little things like this will help you get faster and change up your training a bit also.

When doing hill training, don’t do hill repeats more than once a week. Try mixing up the hills you try –- some short and steep, and other longer ones with a smaller incline.

Now, what questions do you have for me about this?  BTW – If it occurs to you, it very likely is occurring to others as well, so ask.


2 thoughts on “Training and racing on hills

  1. Wow! Joe and I met yesterday – yes in the rain, for our first training session! I was very excited- (the kind of scared/excited/adrenaline rush) feeling you get before a race! Silly I know – but come on!!! The race director meeting me for a training session??!!! I had some trouble wrapping my mind around that! He was very matter of fact – coach like- all business for those
    of you wondering what it might be like… awesome!!! Ok – I will get on with it! The goal of the training was to get me more comfortable with hills – particularly, Tower Hill in Red Bank for the upcoming George Sheehan Race. We met at the church parking lot on Tower Hill.

    Lesson 1. How to run – ok sounds basic enough right? But it was really interesting. Joe is a downhill skier – luckily I have skied, so I was able to follow the idea. He had me lean forward from my ankles – (if you ski – you get the idea?). Now lean forward (from ankles) till you fall forward, until you have to take a step… that is your running position. You are positioning your center of gravity – forward. This changes your stride slightly causing your foot placement to change slightly forward from the heel. He explained to me that heel strikes are like brakes – we want to avoid the brakes. Also continuous heel strikes will cause injury over time. Now part two – change your cadence. Cadence is the rhythm of your foot strikes. Speed does not equal long strides – why? Long strides equals heel strikes. Speed equals shorter quicker foot strikes in the mid foot, while keeping your feet under your hips. Homework – Practice the forward position with the quicker cadence, while keeping your feet under the hips. Note – He makes it look easy.

    Lesson 2. How to run uphill – sounds awful – right? He made it easy… No I am not kidding!! He had me running uphill without losing my breath and talking the whole time??? We applied the same running principals that I just discussed. You do not charge the hill – (I have always charged the hill to get up as fast as possible – coming from the position – please God make it end). He said maintain the same amount of effort on the hill as on the flat. Huh??? How do I do that? Using the principals of running on the flat. I lean forward from the ankles and use the short quick steps. Important point – stay upright. I always leaned forward into the hill at the waist and watched the ground (fear of tripping). Joe said that this impacts my respiratory effort – causing me to become breathless quickly, stay upright to maximize respiratory effort. So I am running uphill, using quick short steps, in an upright position,with a slight forward lean from ankles, not as fast as on the flat – but feeling the same amount of effort. I cannot believe the difference!! It was almost easy (I am scared to say that because it sounds unbelievable)!! Joe said that by not increasing my effort as I have in the past- I can maximize my down hill run. HUH??? Ok – that is that is lesson 3. Homework- Practice staying upright and not looking at the ground. Apply forward position and short quick cadence. Practice relaxing legs and not charging the hill.

    Lesson3. How to run downhill- This is my biggest problem. Traditionally, I run downhill trying to slow down the whole time. I feel out of control, which scares me, and so I brake. Joe said you want to use the speed of the downhill in your race – it is free speed, you don’t want to break. Breaking injures your knees, ankles, hamstrings and quads – you can feel the pain during and after the race. We apply the same principals to running downhill, lean slightly forward, keeping our feet under our hips, and short cadence. Important point – keep legs relaxed. Do not look down – a big one for me – fear of tripping. Even while practicing with Joe right beside me – I am breaking. I recognize right away that I get scared. Joe says that with practice, I will overcome that fear. Homework- Repeat downhill running until I am comfortable with speed. Apply short cadence and keeping my feet underneath me.

    I have a lot of practicing to do, but if I can apply the principals I think I will see tremendous improvement over my time last year in the George Sheehan race! I will let you know how I make out!

    • Hi Joan,

      You are a great student and I enjoyed our time together! You forgot to mention that the road we practiced on was actually steeper than Tower Hill (which we could see below). You were able to run up and down that steeper hill easier than normal. That’s a serious accomplishment. With about three weeks until your race on Tower Hill, and one more training session to go, I know that you’ll be looking to kick some serious butt on that hill during your race, and you will!

      Oh, and thanks for not bagging the session because it was raining! You’re a real runner and I admire that about you!

      Call me if you have questions and let’s plan to get together again around the 7th (about a week prior to your race).

      Best wishes,


      PS – Nice recap of our training session!

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