Tips for Hills: How to Let Your Freak Flag Fly

I am barely recovered from hosting Thanksgiving…barely.

Is that a carrot in your cavity, or are you just happy to see me?

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Still, there’s no time to rest on the laurels of a food-poisoning-free holiday.  There are errands to run–

Grande nonfat Peppermint Mocha, no whip, just two pumps of syrup…

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and cards to send–

Santacard

There are Mizzou games to attend this weekend in Atlanta (yes, we are going!)–

And (fortunately?) there are runs to fit into the mix.

Do you plan your run routes to avoid hills?  I used to.  For years I felt like I was terrible on hills (and I was.)  Especially as a beginning runner–I felt my legs turn to stone the minute I hit the teeniest incline.  Any grade change was like giving Medusa the stink eye.  I sucked.

Rather than tackle the problem, I avoided it, planning most of my routes to be flat.  My performance on hills made me feel like a terrible runner, and I had enough confidence issues already!  So I would run largely flat routes and suffer occasional hills while berating myself for my lack of strength and ability.

As you might imagine, this strategy had its limitations, which became clear as I became a better runner (I will never be a superfast runner, but I’ve at least gotten better over the years and usually finish with times in the top 20% for women.)

For me, I’m not sure there’s anything worse than being in the middle of a decent race and then getting your ass kicked by other runners on hills.  Getting smoked during the last stretch by runners with a better finishing kick sucks too, but I think getting beat on hills is the ultimate downer for me personally, because when that happens I really feel outtrained.

Beat me, fine–we are all limited as to how well we can run, we run at varying paces during a race, and maybe you held back more earlier when I let it all hang out.  I can live with that, and I have to live with being beat and accept that I will never be an elite.  I can do that.  But don’t outtrain me.  That’s not cool.

So in recent years, I’ve stopped avoiding hills.  I make sure to plan my routes to include them.  I’m admittedly still not real big on hill repeats, which I know would make me even better, but I run a lot of hills in all my runs except for speedwork/intervals, and I’ve learned to look forward to the challenge and the reward.  I will never stink on hills again.  Nobody puts Baby in a corner.  Eat my dust, bitches.

Here are my non-expert tips on getting through hills, including common mistakes that I’ve been all too guilty of!  Enjoy!

Tip #1:  Have a mantra—a hill credo, if you will (and I think you will.)  Say it at the start of every hill.  Mine used to be, “There’s gold in them thar hills!”  Yes, I used to say that to myself before each one.  Don’t ask me why.  Recently, however, I’ve changed.  I told HH a month or so ago that some laundry wasn’t going to “fart itself clean!”, which led to hysterical laughter, and so now when I approach a hill I tell myself that that hill isn’t going to climb itself, which makes me laugh and relax.  I don’t know if it will stick, but it’s how I’m rollin’ for now.

Tip #2:  Relax!  Let the tension out!  This is fun, godd#$%it!  Seriously, don’t let the tension build up in your body.  If you need to, relax your arms and shake them out a little as you run.  Don’t let them get tight…pay attention to the tension in your arms and hands.  If you’re making fists and your muscles are tensed, well, you need a drink or a smoke or yoga or something.

Tip #3:  Upper body form–don’t slouch!  It’s good to lean a little forward, but do it from the waist and keep your head up and looking forward, shoulders up and strong.  You don’t want to compress your lung volume in any way.  I see a lot of runners running up hills with a curved back, shoulders forward and down.  I kindly tap them on the shoulder as I pass and tell them, “You’re doing it wrong!”  Just kidding.  I only say that in my head.

Tip #4:  Watch those arms!  Yes, it’s true that if you get your arms rolling, your feet will follow, but lots of people seem to think it’s Rock Em Sock Em Robots out there.  Get ’em pumping, drive them a little, but keep the motion controlled and forward moving–don’t cross the midline of the body.  That’s wasted energy, and aren’t you hurting enough already?

Tip #5:  Shorten your stride.  Do NOT think you’re attacking the hill by stretching your stride out.  Shorter strides and faster turnover is the key here.  Keep the stride short and really try to land on your forefoot.  You really don’t want to be heel striking here.  I am a heel striker, and I don’t pay too much attention to it during the rest of my runs, but I make sure not to do it on hills.  If I’m heel striking, I change my form.

Tip #6:  Some people say to break a hill into chunks and focus on getting through each little piece.  That doesn’t work for me.  I can try to visualize just the next 20 yards, but the fact is the remainder is still there, and I know it.  So if it works for you, fantastic!  I look at the whole hill, keeping my head up and my gaze forward, and I TAKE IT DOWN!!!!!!!!!!

Tip #7:  Don’t stop, make it pop!  Whatever  you do, don’t stop at the top, beginners!  You’re not Rocky in training here.  Resist the urge to stop, drop your hands to your knees while gasping for air, and congratulate yourself.  Crest that hill, run down it, and teach your body how to recover and KEEP running.  Your heart rate will learn to come back down and settle into an easier pace over time.  Plus, running downhill is also hard on your muscles, just like running uphill (particularly knees and quads), so your body needs that practice too.  Double plus?  It’s an incredible feeling to chew up a big hill and then settle back into your regular pace, breathing, etc., like a pro.

Looking back over my tips, you might think I’m a good runner.  Full admission:  I am not.  But I love to run, and I love hills!  See you at the top!

What I’m Running To:  The Man by Aloe Blacc.

Questions?  Tips of your own?  Please leave a comment!

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34 thoughts on “Tips for Hills: How to Let Your Freak Flag Fly

  1. These are actually great tips! I struggle on hills as well — I’ve been good about incorporating them at the END of runs (2 reasons: they WIPE it out of me so I leave them for the end…and I like the downhill finish) but I need to make sure I work them in through out all parts of the run!

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  2. Angie not only are your hill training tips excellent for newer runners like me, but your writing makes me laugh out loud. Thank you!
    One of my learnings doing hill repeats in prep for the upcoming marathon was perspective. I did a post on running hill repeats under the cancer center near where I live. I imagined/hallucinated that I could see a women receiving chemo watching me through the window. It made a huge shift in my thinking about hills. I still suck at them…don’t get me wrong. The perspective is now I realize how fortunate I am to suck at running hills. 🙂

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  3. From the cover photo and the title I anticipated a very different kind of post. I am actually laughing to myself because boy was I way off base. Rather you are a great marketer, or play tricks with your titles, I am glad I read this post because it was as entertaining as it was informative.

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  4. Hi Angie: Not sure if you remember me… I’m a friend of Pam’s. Anyway, this post is just what I need as I get ready for the Escalade this weekend. Hills are really not my strong suit (nor is running for that matter!) but I’ll keep your comments in mind, then maybe I can laugh my way up the hills. Thanks! Love your blog!

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    • Hi Lynne! I remember you…hope you’re doing well! Good luck with Escalade…I loved that run! Focus on consistent effort, not consistent pace, and you will do great. Good luck, and thanks for reading!

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  5. Spot on! I used to hate hill repeats, but now I enjoy them. Only thing I’d add is to try and land softly when going down hill – that advice would’ve saved me a few blisters and toenails.
    I’m impressed your turkey was able to handle triple penetration!

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  6. Great tips!! I actually like (notice I didn’t say love) hills in training because I know that running a flat race will seem easier. A hill is better than a parking garage though, which is all I have here in the flatland! I’ll keep those tips in mind as we run up and down and back up and back down and back up…..

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  7. That turkey is obscene even without the caption.

    I don’t mind hills, although I had one in particular kick my ass twice and I’m not sure I’m going to tackle it again anytime soon.

    I tend to look down rather than up the hill when I run because it tricks my brain into thinking it’s not as steep. And I focus on how great it’s going to feel when I’m done. My turnover is already pretty short and quick, so it serves me well on hills. I’ve been working on my downhills because those make me a little nervous about injury.

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  8. You’re being sneaky. Only exceptional runners can compile such a list of useful tips for hill running. I indeed better watch the fuck out for you the next time I’m in a race, going up a hill! 🙂

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  9. Hey, I haven’t seen a post in a while. I hope you are doing well and just staying busy with this crazy ass time of year. Stopping by to send you some love from the Nuthouse!

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  10. Well written! Good advice for the hills. Thank you.

    Where I live, any direction I start is a hill. I learned to love them long ago, when I started running… Seriously, and this IS dumb, I used to feel my butt muscles working to pump up a hill and I’d imagine that each step was my ass turning into something so freakin’ rock solid that you could bounce a quarter off it and get change! Then I started having a mantra for the hill repeats: “Climb. Kill. Conquer.” Yeah. Because I started to hate the hills. Lately, I’ve found that, when running on the sidewalk, focusing on the number of footsteps per concrete square made a huge difference, as my oxygen deprived brain would get super caught up in counting…yes, counting…over and over… (Seriously, “1. 2. 3. 4…” Over and over… ) that the hill would just disappear. Poof! And, I’m at the top. Now, in recent runs with a guy ranked top two in the Nation for Ultras and a couple of local “runs” that do nothing but showcase and barely harness the power of the local mythic-level hills here, I’ve found that there are still hills out here that are out to suck my soul out through my soles. Yeah. I did that.

    Happy running.

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