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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 approach that rewards extra effort.
The Satisfying Way
The biggest fear is that running a hill will be hard work and it will tire you out. That CAN be true, but at the same time, you can get a real buzz out of conquering the hill!
Going up a hill shouldn't hurt - but if you're looking to get that "YESSSSS" factor, it will take effort and can be tiring. But here's what we tend to forget. Unless you're in an area with lots of hills, they'll only make up a small proportion of your route. And, let's face it - if you're in an area with lots of hills, you'll be aware of them and are prepared to learn how to handle them.
When you get to the top, you go back to your normal level of effort, you'll recover pretty quickly and be back to normal. AND … for every metre you work hard going up a hill, you get a metre of downhill that takes little or no effort. So, overall, hills aren't so bad.
As always, running is a matter of cost/benefit analysis. That's just a fancy way of saying that you want to get the most benefit from any extra effort. So what's the best way to the top of the hill?
It depends on the hill. The two main factors are how long it is, and how steep.
For long hills, the best plan is to treat it like a "tempo" run - increase your effort by a sustainable amount - about 20% extra. That's a level of increased effort that you can sustain for 20 minutes or so.
For very steep hills, put your extra effort into just keeping going. Keep your "cadence" (the number of steps per minute) at the same level as for running on the flat, but reduce your stride length, taking "baby steps". This will keep you going up the steepest inclines. Just don't worry about your pace. It's a steep hill, and nobody else will be flying up it.
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. Having said that, you do need to consider the rest of your route. Sometimes the smarter option is to walk the steepest parts of a hill, conserving your energy. Or you can take a middle ground option - walk briskly for, say, 20 paces then jog for 50. That'll still be better than most others. You can adjust the mix of walk/jog and your level of effort to suit the challenge.
Short, sharp hills are the best of both worlds. Start accelerating before you reach the bottom. This will build up some speed, and this will carry you up the first part of the hill. When you feel yourself starting to work harder, put the pedal to the metal. You're trying to sprint to the top! Yes, that sounds daft, but it works. And when you get to the top, you'll feel so good! Just remember that you can only keep up that maximum effort for a short period, so gauge your speed to match the hill. The shorter the hill, the more you can beast it. The longer and steeper, the more you need to keep something back to get you to the top.
One final tip. If you're running in a competition, you can gain a real advantage over your rivals by pounding up a hill - that will demoralise them. Even better, don't stop when you get to the top - run over the crest and off into the distance. True, you need time to settle back down to your normal running rhythm. But everyone else will be tired from the climb and probably taking a rest. Even running on for a few hundred metres will get you way out in front of them. Then you can relax and recover.
Ultimately, you need to learn through experience. You'll come to know what you're able to do in any given instance, and that'll let you adopt the strategy which is best for you.
Like everything else, the best way to learn is to start easy and gradually work your way up to bigger challenges. This will give you confidence, reinforce your belief in yourself and give you time to develop your strength & conditioning.
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.
“Beasting hills can be fun”