Question: Why Should I Incorporate

Are hills your adversary or your ally? Incorporating hills in your routine and learning how to run them correctly can be a huge benefit to your training and make your running more fun. When you learn to conquer hills, you will be amazed how much fun your running will be. Many runners dread hills and lose their enthusiasm as they approach them. You want to look forward to hills and be excited that they give you a chance to demonstrate your prowess. How is this possible?

Hill training will not only improve your ability to run hills, but make you a better, stronger runner on any course, whether it be cross country, track or road. Proper hill training strengthens muscles, aids propulsion and helps stabilize joints. Each of these increases running efficiency.

I started my collegiate career under the guidance of Al Carius, recently named by Sports Illustrated as “The Greatest Cross Country Coach of the 20th Century.” Among the many things he imparted to us was the importance of “proper” hill training. At least once a week we would jog to a ski slope and run repeats. The climb was very steep, but we would accelerate off the top of the hill and cruise down a gentler slope only to climb again. These workouts were not exceptionally long, but intense. The focus was on proper technique and remaining efficient no matter how fatigued you became. After the hills, we did a 4-mile tempo back to campus and then a warm-down. This was a simple but incredibly effective workout. I quickly learned some of the not-so-secret training methods of this team, which was perennially one of the very best in the county.

The neat thing about hill training is that it doesn’t leave you trashed like pure speed work and interval training, so you can incorporate more quality workouts into your weekly schedule. The strength this running generates also helps to prevent injury. Our team rarely had injuries, and that durability let everyone train more consistently. Consistency is what leads to overall development in a runner. If you train well for several weeks and then get hurt, recover and then repeat the process, you will not develop well and probably not achieve your goals. Coach Carius would say: “Plant seeds and nurture properly and you will experience mature growth.”


What constitutes proper hill technique in training is not necessarily the same as in racing. In training, you want to concentrate on working all of your muscles (feet, legs, pelvis, arms and shoulders) to create strength. At the top of the hill, you learn to accelerate and then relax going down. In racing, you want to concentrate on maintaining your effort during the climb, then to accelerate off the top of the hill and fly down the descent. The key to downhill racing is to relax and swoop down the hill. You must stay loose and not land on your heels; this “braking action” will just jar your legs and hips. You cannot hold back when you are racing downhill. Downhills can allow you to make up ground and cut serious seconds off your overall time.

On the approach to a hill, shorten your strides, get up on your midfoot and lean into the hill. Drive your arms (elbows) straight down. This will help to lift your legs. Remember that you cannot move your legs faster than you move your arms. It helps to think of pushing with your toes, which will get you off your heels. Think of driving up and off the pavement. You can’t do this if you are flat footed. Build momentum by accelerating before the hill and know that midway up is the hardest, so pace yourself. No one ever died running up a hill, so don’t stop at the top; run over, then accelerate down the hill. Sounds easy doesn’t it?

Many runners do not drive off their feet. When running up a hill, divide your energy into lifting your legs, and pushing off the ground. Drive your elbows down, lift your knees and push off your toes. Devote 50% of your energy to lifting your knees, and 50% in driving off your toes. If you find your calves are less sore than your quads when going up hills, then you are pulling up your knees more than pushing off your toes.

Running fast downhill is counterintuitive: take short strides at first and stay balanced. You want to go down the hill in much the same manner as going up. Stay off your heels, shorten your stride, and do not lean back. Begin with small baby steps at first, concentrating on staying on your toes. Visualize freeing your legs as if you were riding a unicycle. It is difficult to lose your fear of falling, so take these short quick steps at first. When you become more confident, lengthen your strides until you can run down the hill with the same long confident strides you use when sprinting. It will take a minimum of five sessions before you begin to feel confidence in what you are doing, so don’t give up, persevere and you will be well rewarded. Many runners are faster on hilly courses because they can fly down the hills using this technique and recover from the uphill at the same time.

Keys to proper hill training

1. Incorporate hills weekly in your training.

2. Make your running fun.

3. Don’t ever race your partners, but instead work on technique and strength.

4. Accelerate off the top of the hill.

5. Much like footstrike and running form, everyone is unique and each needs to find the proper balance that works for him or her.

6. Make hills your friends. Good Luck! Train Smart! Race Smarter!

Published in: Pace Running Magazine. Summer 2013

Hill Training

By Jeff Milliman