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So you're running along, quite happily, enjoying the rhythms of your feet, breath, pulse. You're in the zone and everything is going perfectly. Then you see it. THAT hill. Heartbreak Hill. Hill of Hope.
Do you lick your lips and turn on the afterburners all the way to the top? Do you head on up, grumbling all the way? Or do you make a sharp turn and find an alternative route?
So many runners take that last option. That's understandable - after all, most of us have "Hill Phobia" and never quite get round to learning how to take the effort out of hills. But, really, there isn't very much to be scared of. So here are two ways to tackle a hill. One will take a slower and gentler approach. The other will get your heart racing and leave a real buzz when you get to the top. Neither is the "correct" way. Neither is the "wrong" way. Neither is the "best" way - at the end of the day, the best way is the one that works for you! In this article, we'll cover the slower and gentler approach.
The Easy Way
The biggest fear is that running a hill will be hard work and it will tire you out. That CAN be true, but it needn't be so. The key is to learn to gauge your level of effort. We can use a method that uses the "Perceived Level of Effort".
At any time, you can assess how much effort you're putting in. We use a scale of 1-10 where "1" is little more than sitting on the couch and "10" would be working as hard as you possibly can. A normal walk around your local park would around a "3", a jog is 4 or 5, an easy paced (conversational paced) run would be 6/7 and you would race at 8/9. A level 10 would be achieved only very rarely and for short periods.
Here's the secret! Going up a hill, your level of effort should be much the same as running on the flat. It shouldn't hurt - it shouldn't tire you out - it shouldn't be hard work.
But how can you run up a hill at the same level of effort as running on the flat? Surely that doesn't make sense! But you can. Just reduce your speed. Go slower by taking "baby steps" - shorten your stride. But keep up your "cadence" - the number of steps you take per minute. Maintaining your cadence controls while reducing your stride length results is a slower pace. But then you're not really looking for a fast uphill, are you? The result you ARE looking for is overcoming gravity, achieving a forward and vertical progression, and getting to the top!
As always, that little chimp will be sitting on your shoulder, telling you to stop and walk. It's tempting, but you really have to learn to ignore the chimp.
And this is the last step of learning to run hills. Like everything else in life, it's hard to start with. You need to learn this new approach. You need to become accustomed to it and let it become the natural thing to do on a hill, without having to think about it.
And, like everything else, the best way to learn is to start with easy options and gradually work your way up to bigger challenges. That means starting on short, shallow hills - one that you have no doubt you can manage. This will give you confidence and start building strength. Move on to medium challenges which will reinforce your belief in yourself and further develop your strength & conditioning. Then finally and gradually move up to steeper and longer hills.
Hills use ALL your leg muscles - glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. You'll get tremendous benefits from developing a strong core, so spend some time doing exercises. We've got lots of them on our YouTube channel.
“There's really no need to be scared of hills”