What goes up must come down. That’s the runner’s adage. We tell ourselves this because we ‘negotiate’ with ourselves to help overcome the negative thoughts we often encounter when we approach a big climb on a training run or in a race. Problem is, we often spend so much energy and effort on the way up, that we don’t cash in on the way down! Hills are the nemesis of many runners, and they avoid them, survive them if they must.
But there are a few relatively easy ‘fixes’, available to all who are willing to challenge their mindset, and put in a little practice. Here’s an “uphill running survival toolkit”.
The first thing about hills is mindset. Mindset makes or breaks your performance on a hill because it influences how you respond to the increased physiological challenge. In fact, I’d go even further and point out that mindset can change that physiological challenge, because if you get it right, then you control the hill, not the other way around. It will allow you to embrace the hill, rather than fear and survive it.
Most people have some sense of pace. It may not be acutely dialed in like an elite runner who seems to have a built-in clock, but we all tend to know if we’re slowing down or speeding up. And the first problem with mindset on hills is that we react to slowing down (because gravity forces us to slow down!) by trying disproportionately hard to defend the pace. The result is that we’re running at say a 6 out of 10 on the flat, and then within the first minute or two of an uphill, we’re at 8 or 9 out of 10. Our heart rate might have been a comfortable 130, but suddenly it jumps to 165, and we’re near our limit and surviving.
That’s an over-reaction to the slowing of pace. What you have to do, mindset wise, is adjust your expectation. Expect that you’re going to be slower, then accept that you’re going to be slower, and then find a physiological stress or ‘tempo’ that your body can handle.
Because it’s a hill, it is going to be hard, but it should not jump from a 6 out of 10 to a 9 out of 10. Let it drift to a 7, maybe reaching 8 only at the top, when you know you’ll be able to recover, but keep it under control.
So the key, in terms of your mental approach, is to avoid forcing it early. Don’t panic, don’t overreact to slowing down, don’t rush, don’t get negative. Rather keep your thoughts positive, and focus not on the speed but on your own perceptions of your body – is your breathing still under control, are you landing comfortably, do you feel control and power when you push off each stride?
Pacing – spend the budget wisely
If you focus on those elements, then you’re in a great position to pace yourself optimally, which is key point number two. Pacing is basically how well you spend your ‘budget’. Think of your body’s various physiological systems as a bank balance, and your job is to get from the bottom of the hill to the top without burning through it halfway up! Obviously, you have to do this in the context of the whole run (you need to spend your budget to get from start to finish, be it a 10km training run or a marathon), but the hill is a pacing challenge within a pacing challenge.
The best advice I ever got about hills is that you should aim to “run over the hill”. In other words, don’t set your target at the top, set it 200m beyond the top. That’s important because you want to get to the top feeling strong, not absolutely rinsed and wrung out by the climb. So if your goal is to keep going with a hard effort for another 200m beyond the hill, you’ll feel so much stronger at the top, and in a position to really capitalize on the coming downhill.
Once you get this, then combining points one and two mean that you’re going to be patient. You’re going to focus on your body, not the speed. You’re going to be in control the whole way up, running at YOUR tempo. And you’re going to get to the top of the hill with a lot in the tank, which means you’ll be first to pick up speed on the downhills. That’s the mark of a good, successful hill climb. In contrast, the “failed hill climb” is the one where you walk within sight of the top because you’ve pushed too hard too soon, not been patient, and thus paying through survival!
The rest is really details. And a lot of practice – getting pace judgment right, particularly on hills, requires a good deal of awareness – “how are my legs, how is my breathing, am I going too fast?”, and that comes only with repetition and really learning to listen to your body’s signals.
There are some technical things you can do to improve your hill running, and those are worth practicing while you learn the patience and pacing mentioned above. First, don’t “fall over”. You’ll see a lot of runners whose shoulders hunch when they run up hill. They lean forward, a natural inclination to try to overcome gravity, but they do so from the shoulders, which ends up achieving the opposite effect. You push your shoulders forward, but it tends to push your hips back and you actually move your centre of mass backwards.
This also makes it harder to breathe, because you close off your airways. So, what you want to do instead is try to stay ‘rigid’ and upright with your core – think about leaning forward from the ankles, so that you keep a straight line from your ankles to your hips to your shoulders. This requires a pretty strong core, which is why regular core training makes for good hill running!
A second tip is on stride. Think about cutting your stride length slightly. The focus should be on cadence (stride frequency, so that is steps per minute), and not length. Because it’s uphill, your stride length will decrease, but that’s part of what I’ve encouraged you to accept as the first key point above. Accept a shorter stride, but try to defend stride rate. Light and fast beats heavy and long when you’re running uphill.
Don’t overdo it with the arms either, it’s just a waste of energy, but is tempting because you’ll feel like it adds power to your climb. The name of the game is efficiency – spend the least amount of effort possible to hit what you accept is your uphill speed.
And finally, think “glutes”. Obviously, running up a hill is a quad buster, and that’s where you’ll feel the most specific fatigue. Your quads will burn, and as you get better at hills, it’ll be because your quads are getting stronger. However, what you should be aiming is to recruit your glutes as much as possible, so think about “pushing from the back”, and consider doing things like step-ups and deadlifts to teach your brain how to activate those glutes. The “drive” or power should feel like it’s coming from behind you, pushing you up the hill, rather than letting your poor quads take on ALL the word to “pull” you up the climb.
And that’s about it. Mindset first, pacing second, and some technical elements to think about as you run up the hills. They’re where your races are made (or broken), and so hopefully with this toolkit, you can learn to embrace the challenge and conquer the hills in future!