Running Hills

It’s that time in your training to step it up a notch. Hill Training! Not only do we have some hilly races that we are training for, hill training in general is a great add-on to your program, for those who are ready and prepared.  We are starting our Hill Training add-on phase.

Proven Benefit

Hill training has been proven to benefit runners that are training from distances from the 5k to the full marathon.  Hill training is a form of “resistance training” which is beneficial in many sports. Many runners and coaches alike will replace all traditional “resistance training” with hill workouts.   For some OMG reference, East Africans typically do hill runs that include up to 4,000 foot climbs over 13 miles distances.

Training on your own

For those who can’t join us on our training runs and looking to do some on your own, check out the first referenced article on Runner’s World. We will essentially be doing #2 “Hilly Power Run” though ours isn’t 10mi long, the effect is the same - strong medium distance hill after a solid easy warm-up of 3-4mi.

Benefits: Physiological, Mental & Mechanical

  • Builds strength in Quads, Glutes & Core and tendons & ligaments.
  • Increase in Aerobic Capacity (nearing V02max workouts)
  • Increases your Running Economy (oxygen usage over distance)
  • Breaks up the usual routine & forces you to adapt to different stresses.
  • Increases and improves ankle & joint flexion

When hill running and comparing your pace and cadence, think back to good old Geometry.  When running uphill, you not only have the horizontal component, but you now have a slight vertical (step up) component.   Your leading foot will strike the ground quicker as the ground approaches quicker. With your cadence kept constant, your horizontal component (speed) will have to drop.   The natural step up cannot be forgotten so this unfortunately does not count towards your horizontal ground speed in any way so consider it wasted ;)

With all of this in mind, your goal is to keep your overall effort equal, NOT your pace.  If you have a Heart Rate Monitor, these are the times to wear it.

How To Run Hills – Going Up?

  • Cadence?  Stays the same!!!
  • Pace?  Will have to drop some -> Stride length shortens.  Don’t worry if your pace slows, you should expect to.
  • Strive for equal effort, not pace.
  • Posture stays upright w/ slight lean in reference to the ground; you will be more ‘vertical’ to the horizon)
  • Keep your core engaged and forward.  Envision your hips/core leaning ‘into’ the incline.
  • Avoid “toeing” off with toes/calves.  Keep a consistent “fall forward”. Just plan on hitting the ground a bit quicker and in shorter distance.
  • Increase your arm movement & action as needed – envision “pumping” through the hill.

How To – Going Down?

  • Cadence?  Take a wild guess . . . . Stays the same!!
  • Pace?  Will increase -> Stride length naturally lengthens (don’t allow too much though)
  • Biggest mistake that most make is going too fast, sprinting or over striding.  This will wreak havoc on your Quads and will catch up to you. See “Eccentric Contract” next.
  • Quads will be undergoing major “Eccentric Contraction” = KILLER  (EC = elongation while under tension, deceleration / braking action)
  • Posture remains upright w/ slight lean (but will be more “downhill”)
  • Allow feet/lower half to “fall” under you. Let gravity work for you!
  • Trick is to balance a “falling” over your feet motion and quad contraction at the same time.

San Diego Race Hills

Many of us here in San Diego run the infamous La Jolla Half Marathon which was at one time deemed one of America’s (West Coast) toughest half marathon hill in a recent Road Runner’s magazine.  The Torrey Pines hill is approximately 1.7 miles long and climbs 433 feet between miles 5.5 and 7.0 for an approximate 5% grade overall. To add insult to injury, miles 8.5 to 10.5 drop back down that same 420 feet which is nice and all until you get to mile 12 and have to run the next 0.5 mile up the 150ft climb.  Good bye Quads!! For humor-me reference, that African Run up 4,000 feet also equates to a nearly 6% grade . . . just don’t forget that it’s over 13 miles!

The AFC Hill is also a doozy - not as steep as La Jolla Half, but the issue is that a) it’s at the end of the race, b) you’re legs are pretty wiped from the huge downhill at the beginning and c) being August, it can be very warm so weather is an issue.

Here is data on some of the local races:

Rock n Roll Half & Hot Chocolate 15k - 197ft over 1.75mi = 2.13% (Steepest ~6% between 1.6-1.7miles)

AFC Half - 220ft over 1.39 miles = 3.0% Grade (Steepest ~ 6% between 1 and 1.2miles)

La Jolla Half - 433ft over 1.7 miles = 4.8%  (Steepest ~12% During first ¼ mile)


Running hills takes a lot of practice.  Not only from a conditioning and strength training standpoint, but from a form and mechanics standpoint.  Downhill running effectively takes even more practice, especially the “falling” over your feet without allowing yourself to go into a sprint which will in turn cause you to over stride which will in turn kill your Quads.   With that said, hill training should only be done, however, once your base building phase is complete and you are “seasoned” and ready to take your training to the next level.


Hill Training is both beneficial for your running training and for your overall endurance fitness. But it needs to be approached with care, and like many other aspects of training, don't overdo it too much too soon.

See ya on the Hills!

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