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They sneak up when you want reprieve.  Your heart rate spikes, your muscles ache, and your pace drops despite your best effort.  While not everyone has access to hilly terrain or a desire to race on hilly courses, training on hills will make you a stronger runner overall.  Uphill running builds muscle, boosts cardiovascular endurance, and results in uncontrollable smiles when you crest a big hill.

When I first moved to San Francisco from the (relative) flatlands of NYC, I huffed and puffed up each and every hill – walking or running.  If I was to pursue trail running where flat races are a rarity, I’d need to take a crash course in steep running.  Three years later, I’m running up hills at pace – the same hills that would spike my heart rate when I used to walk them.  Here’s what helped me take my hill running to the next level.

Don’t worry about pace.  Could you run a 5K without stopping to walk the first time you went for a run?  Many new runners start by focusing on moving for X minutes – not running a specific distance.  Apply this to running uphill by pushing yourself to run for 1, 2, or 5 minutes without walking.  Keep your progress in mind, and try to exceed your personal best each time.

Manage your heart rate on the uphills, and push when the terrain flattens out.  This was key for running San Francisco Marathon.  By conceding to taking roughly a minute off my marathon pace on steep hills, I worked to gain that time back on the subsequent flat or downhill sections.  Keeping my heart rate down on hills allows me to run faster, longer, and stronger.

Find a hill that you want to conquer, and keep practicing until you can run the entire length.  As I improved my uphill running, I found that I was on the cusp of running up most hills.  I picked realistic challenges – not the steepest or longest hills, but ones I could encounter in a race and repeated them.  Taylor and I recently ran Heather Cutoff in Marin County for the second time this past weekend, and she ran almost the entire distance after covering roughly half the first time (last October).  At 1.5 miles and over 600 feet of elevation gain, I would call it a mountain, but either way, it’s amazing progress.

Taylor's "hill" workout

Taylor’s “hill” workout

If it gets too steep, walk.  This is particularly important to me in long distance trail runs.  Despite my uphill running fitness, I get diminishing returns from running up extremely steep hills when there are still plenty of miles to go.  Instead, I play to my strengths, and use these hills to refuel, recover, and refocus before I’m back on the flats.

Here are a few shots of our uphill exploits last weekend:

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