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The Benefits of Hill Training and Mental Strategies

In short, hill training is good for you and it’s good for your running. Why…?


Hill running will make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner.

Running hills achieves this by improving leg strength, quickening your stride, developing your cardiovascular system and enhancing your running economy. What’s more, the benefits are relatively quick to take effect. With six weeks of regular hill training you can expect a significant improvement in your muscle power and speed.

Facing a hill Some runners dread hill sessions and fear being faced with a hill in training. My suggestion is that next time you have to run a hill decide to not wince and think ‘I can’t’ but rather focus. Shift gears both mentally and physically and prepare to attack the hill. To run a hill well and for it not to get you down, it’s all about maintaining a steady rhythm. Pick a sustainable pace suitable for the length and gradient, and bosh it off.

Here’s some more thoughts on how to attack it:

- As you start uphill, shorten your stride. Don’t try to maintain the pace you were running on the flat.

- Take ‘baby steps’ if necessary.

- You are aiming for equal effort going up as well as down, not equal pace.

- Keep upright – don’t lean forward or back. Keep your feet low to the ground.

- Use a light, ankle-flicking push-off with each step, not an explosive motion, which will waste energy.

- If the hill is long or the gradient increases, keep shortening your stride to maintain a smooth and efficient breathing pattern. If the gradient decreases, extend your stride again.

- Run through the top of the hill. Don’t crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back on your effort.

- Accelerate gradually into the downhill.

What mental games are there to help me run hills with more ease?

Hill repeats can be hard both physically and mentally but you feel really good after you’ve completed them!

These are mental strategies I have used when running hills:

• I most often use a ‘head down’ approach. I find I run hills much better if I don’t keep looking at the top and thinking ‘oh God…’. Rather I look just in front of me and focus on my rhythm. By focusing on the ground just ahead of me and substituting the ‘I can’t’ with thoughts of how this is building a strong power base within me, allows me to repeat to myself ‘I can and I will’.

• I have also tried using someone just ahead of me as a target. If you can maintain a steady pace on the up you will be surprised how quickly you catch them up. By shifting your focus on to a person you are distracting yourself from the effort required to run the hill and before you know it the hill is over.

• Another motivator is the idea you are attached to a bungee. Imagine you have a piece of elastic attached to you and the top of the hill. It’s under tension and it’s pulling you towards it.

• I also use the counting trick. At the bottom I set a number of steps I think it will take me to get to the top and I count in 10s until I either make it or I have to reset my goal. Again, I keep my head down until I have counted out the set number, I am usually at the top or just short of the top when I look up and a short concerted effort gets me over the crest.

I hope this now allows you to attack that hill with renewed vigor and in a more convincing and positive way. Once in a race, by all means use these tactics too. However, sense and race tactics must prevail. Most ultra athletes will walk the very steep stuff to conserve energy for later stages of the race. I would adopt a fast, active walk to get up a hill in this situation. Again, what I said about rhythm applies to the walking pace as much as it does when running.


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