How is it some runners skip up inclines when the rest of us huff and puff to the top? With the right approach, technique and attitude, hills don’t have to be hard.

When you’re a beginner, simply running on the flat is hard enough. Running uphill is even harder and can be demoralising when you’re just getting started. It can make you feel out of breath – and out of control – very quickly. But the good news is that it will get better. When you’re just starting out, try to find flatter routes to begin with. As you get fitter, you’ll get better at tackling hills, but give yourself time to get fit on the flat first. 

One of the biggest mistakes many runners make (especially beginners) is to push the hill too hard. There’s a sense of “get it over and done with” or they try to “attack” the hill, thinking it’ll make them fitter faster. 

Try the opposite approach. Slow down and walk briskly instead. You can actually go just as quickly, but your heart rate will be lower (5-10 beats); you’ll be more efficient and will be able to pick up the pace again at the top. It’s a win-win approach.

Blasting ithills train

When you push a hill hard, your heart rate will rise and you’ll tap into your glycogen stores. Each time you work a hill hard, you eat away at a bit more of the fuel tank. It’s a bit like revving the engine of your car and using up fuel in short bursts. It’s not efficient and you’ll run out of fuel more quickly than if you run more conservatively. This is especially important for long runs, marathons and ultras.

If you’re a “hill blaster” you might find that after 90 minutes to two hours on a long hilly run, you’re hitting the wall. If so, just slow down and take the hills more gently. Don’t be scared to walk or drop your pace right down – and think about preserving your precious glycogen stores. Ultra runners have it sussed. They don’t attack hills and at the hint of a slope, they just walk and conserve energy – they know they’ve still got a long way to go. Think about maintaining effort level, not pace. It’s a tortoise-and-hare strategy.

You can, of course, choose to do atraining session where you DO blast the hills. This would be more of a specific “hill training session”, which you would do to get stronger after a period of consistent and regular running. Running hill reps comes with risks of increased injury, so only tackle a hill session if you’re niggle free and have been running some time. Hills place more strain on your calves and Achilles, so just be careful.

Flat races are not all they seem

Don’t choose flat races thinking they’re the “easy” option. Flat races require you to work hard the whole time, maintain pace and stay focused, which is pretty tough, especially for anything more than half marathon distance. Many runners find they run their personal best on a course that has undulations rather than being pancake flat.

So instead of always looking for flat events, look for a race profile that has some gradual undulations. This will break up the repetitive monotony and pace, giving you a breather on the downhills too. Don’t be scared of hills in a race, just approach them sensibly and with confidence and enjoy the downhill reward.

And finally…

As you get fitter and more confident, you’ll find hills get easier. Try a few hill training sessions and you’ll find those hills become less scary and less challenging as you become more able to tackle them. Don’t fear hills. Respect them; appreciate what they can do for you, and learn to love them.