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Using Hills to Improve Your Fitness

The topic of hill training has been on my mind a lot lately. Dakotah Lindwurm has begun her preparations for the Olympic Games Marathon, which features a very hilly 10 mile stretch in the middle of the race, so we're doing some new things to prepare for that course. However, even if you aren’t getting ready for a big race on a hilly course, hills are a great training tool for improving various aspects of your fitness. 

If you are new to hill training, it is important to exercise some caution, especially in the first few weeks of training on this undulating terrain. Hills present a greater challenge to your cardiovascular system as well as the muscles of your legs, especially your calves and quads. Because of this, you will need to run a little slower and/or reduce your total training volume until your body has adapted to the terrain.

Good hill running technique can certainly help reduce the strain on your body. As you go uphill, keep your strides quick and short. Over-striding will cause you to lose momentum and you will become less efficient. Slightly exaggerating your knee lift and driving your arms will help you work against the incline more effectively. Take advantage of downhills by leaning slightly forward and trying to resist the urge to “hit the brakes.” On steeper downhills, this may be impossible, but gradual downhills are a great place to practice taking advantage of gravity.

Short hill repeats can be done to improve muscular strength and power, which in turn improves running economy. These can range from all-out sprints of 10-15 seconds with an easy walk down to recover, to repeats of 30-60 seconds at a fast but not all out pace (800m to 1 mile race pace). The shorter repeats will improve your ability to recruit muscle fibers in your legs, and can improve top end speed, whereas the 30-60 second repeats tax the anaerobic system and can improve your ability to sustain relatively high intensities, such as when you are kicking in to the finish line at the end of a race.

Long gradual hills can be incorporated into other aerobic-development workouts, such as long runs, tempo runs, or progression runs. Because they are gradual, they won’t throw you into an anaerobic state (i.e. gasping for air), but they will increase the intensity of the run in a more subtle way. These are particularly helpful if you will be running any races that include lots of long gradual hills, because they will teach you how to properly alter your pace in response to up and downhills. You can even try workouts that include a mix of flat and hilly repeats. For example, we do a 3x3 mile workout as part of training for half marathon and marathon races. For Dakotah, we just did this same workout, but put the middle repetition on a hilly route, while the first and third reps were on a flat course.

That leads us to the final point, which is that while training on hills is great, it should be noted that you may need to seek out a flat location for some of your runs. On days when you are really tired and/or sore, a flat jog on grass or another soft surface will allow you to recover much better than another day of running hills. Also, if you plan to race on very flat courses (track and/or flat road races), you will want to keep at least a couple days a week of flat runs, so that you maintain your ability to run efficiently on flat surfaces. One hard session of hills every week or two is enough to get you stronger and more efficient. Who knows, you may even start to look forward to that hill later in the race, knowing you are prepared for the challenge.

This article originally appeared in the The Connection, TCM's weekly e-newsletter. Subscribe here. Find more Motion Expert content here.

Photo by Ben Garvin.


Chris Lundstrom, PhD, is a running coach and exercise scientist who specializes in endurance exercise performance. He is one of the team of Motion Experts TCM has gathered to help its subscribers and participants get the most out of their running. He coaches the Minnesota Distance Elite team and their squad of national class runners, including Olympian Dakotah Lindwurm. He teaches in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and also works with novice and high school runners. Follow and support MDE on their website: and on Instagram: @minnesotadistanceelite.

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