Run For the Hills

I am very excited that we now have the opportunity to feature guest blogger Zolts Running on Runcanvas.

Hills: They make you work harder for a slower pace, and in a race they can turn your next PR attempt into a PW (i.e. a Personal Worst)!

They quickly cause your heart rate to skyrocket, and once you reach the top your legs and lungs are burning and it can seem impossible to recover your pace after. We often dread them, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t count the number of times where I have deliberately avoided them as much as possible so I could clock a faster overall pace on my run. After all, I’ve got Strava followers to impress (or not)! However, regardless of experience level I am willing to bet that almost all runners will agree with me on two things:

  1.  Hills are extremely beneficial to our fitness
  2.  We don’t run up them enough because frankly they can be miserable!

I think we can all identify with this poor wolf!

With that in mind, I want you think of your body as a car for a moment.

If you want to make it go faster then you can either push harder on the gas pedal or increase the horsepower and torque of the engine. The effectiveness of the former is quite limited because you can only up the RPMs so much before the engine will blow out. However, there is practically no limit to how much power you can build into your engine.

Now think about how that translates to running – you can increase your cadence and/or lengthen your stride to speed up, but at some point your strides per minute will hit their max (even a hummingbird has its limits at an incredible 70 flaps per second) and you won’t be able to lengthen them beyond a certain point without injuring yourself. On the other hand, by doing plyometric exercises like hill repeats you will strengthen your legs and increase their power – that means more horsepower and torque!

The engines on both of these cars can run at 6,000+ revolutions per minute but guess which one will go faster?

So why the tendency to avoid hills like the plague??

I think many of us find speedwork and other faster-paced workouts more exciting and therefore don’t give hill workouts a fair chance. If you live in a hilly area like I do, then you come across plenty of hills on your daily runs to make up for this, right? While this is better than nothing, I would argue if you aren’t dedicating at least some workouts entirely to running up hills at some point in your training cycle then you are missing out on something powerful.

After all, even if your race schedule for the season is composed solely of mostly flat courses, you will still reap several benefits from the hill work that apply to any course, including an increase in leg strength and power, all with a lower risk of injury than with traditional speedwork. And if at some point you are looking for a new challenge you can try your hand at racing a course that is known to be very hilly (and believe me, there are plenty around here), such as the infamous Heart of America Marathon in Columbia, MO.

This is a course where PRs go to die!

Reaping the benefits of hill workouts

As you can see, the entire course is rolling with a few horrific hills, especially the one halfway through, which usually brings even the faster runners to a walk for a brief period. I ran this course in 2015 as a training run in preparation for the Kansas City Marathon six weeks later and I truly believe that the warm, humid temperatures and unrelenting hills prepared me well to run a PR (and thus far my only BQ) in a goal race that had its share of hills.

I mentioned a moment earlier that running hills carries less injury risk than doing speedwork. Nearly every runner has or will encounter at least one injury at some point in their “career” (I like to put that in parenthesis when talking about myself because I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon), and there will be times when you may still be able to run, but the strain of speedwork may be too much to handle.

After having foot surgery last year I wasn’t able to run at all for several weeks. Following that, there was a period of about 3 months during which I could gradually introduce running back into my routine, but was unable to run anything other than an easy pace. Interestingly, I quickly found that my foot tolerated running up steep hills just fine, so before long I was back doing strenuous running workouts by running up a very steep hill at what would be an easy pace on a flat surface.

I started doing a weekly hill workout and within a few weeks I felt a noticeable increase in my leg strength. My hill of choice for this workout was 200m long and quite steep; after warming up a couple of miles I would run up at a hard but controlled pace then slowly jog back down before repeating. I usually did 12 repeats, but you could do more or less depending on your weekly training volume. Either way, I am willing to bet you will notice a difference fairly quickly!

There is no vitamin that instantaneously increases your length strength and power but hills are a good start!

Then, I did a couple of practice races to test things out. I wasn’t able to run terribly fast yet because my foot still had lots of recovering to do, but I felt stronger than ever going up the hills and found that I could pass a lot of runners during that time. As I continued to recover and find my normal running pace again, I felt much less of a need than before to shy away from hills on my training runs, even when I was tired. In the end, the boost was not just physical but mental as well. What I had once been afraid of had now become my best friend!

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So – what kind of hill workouts have you tried? Did you experience any noticeable benefits in your running performance?


Author of Zolts Running, Andrew is a member of the KC running community and started running in his early thirties.  Since then he has completed over a hundred races, including 33 half marathons, his favorite distance.  Andrew is a member of Team Run 816.  


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