Dear Runners,

Elevation charts are a wonderful resource when trying to determine whether to register for a race.  A lot of runners are intimidated by hills but they shouldn’t be.  There are different strategies for running hills depending on the length of the race, the length and height of the hill and total number of hills on the course. 

In general, if there is one short hill on a course it is often good to use a constant pace approach where you apply more effort but maintain your pace going up the hill.  When you get to the top of the hill, I always encourage people to keep pulling until they are all the way over the top of the hill and on either level ground or on the downhill on the other side.  For most hills, the point at the top where you want to relax and the point where you should relax, are only separated by about 10 more steps.  So when you get to the top of a hill and you are trying to decide where to pull back the effort, just think – 10 more steps and that is about the right point. 

The following method for hill training and running is based on constant effort and is used when there are larger hills, longer hills or more hills.  It keeps the effort constant on the ups, downs and flats.  Your pace will vary, of course, but you will feel better overall.  And, you will likely have a faster time overall because you are not going to wear yourself out on the uphill portion. 

Hill Training

With the Fleet Feet training routes we certainly get good exposure to hills.  In thinking about the Spring races the Anthem 5K, Rodes City Run (10k) and the mini marathon are all pretty flat.  However, the Papa John’s 10 Miler has 3 miles of pretty intense hills.  The fall races also have some pretty good hills in them.  So it makes sense to talk about tactics to run hills successfully.  What follows is a constant effort technique that I use for running hills. 

We have all heard how you are supposed to focus more on effort and less on pace when running up a hill.  You are supposed to keep your body’s effort constant which will mean that you slow down slightly as you ascend the hill.  The research says that if you try to “attack” a hill and then recover on the other side that your overall time will usually be slower than if you go moderately up the hill and then apply the saved energy to another part of the course.  However, monitoring your effort isn’t easy even if you are using a heart rate monitor.  After all, who is really going to spend the whole time running up a hill while looking down at their watch? 

As I have been playing around with this I realized a couple of things that make this process much easier.  If you shorten your stride and monitor your breathing everything seems to fall into place.  Here is the deal as it works for me.  Prior to going into the hill, really pay attention to your breathing rhythm – If you aren’t in tune with your breathing I talked about that in another note a couple of weeks ago.  Once you hit the hill try to keep your breathing at the same rhythm as when you were on flat ground.  To do that, you will need to consciously shorten your stride length.  So basically you will be taking shorter steps and probably taking more of them.  When I do this I notice that each step I take feels relatively easy.  This is an odd feeling because normally hills feel like a lot of work.  However, when I use this technique the steps aren’t too bad…sort of like being in a lower speed on a bike.  Your turn the pedals more but each turn is easier. As long as your breathing remains the same you are set. 

Also, if you are cross training, any exercise that strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, quads or core will also help you with hill running.  I am a big fan of using the elliptical on a high resistance and steep incline to work my upper legs for hill strength training. 

Feel free to try this hill technique and let me know how it works for you. 

Training Tip

If you want to get a better feel for your effort on hill training I recommend this exercise which was shared with me.  You will need to use the heart rate monitor function of your GPS and I like to do this at the Cherokee Part Scenic Loop. 

Do a 1 mile warm up, easy effort run.  After you are warmed up start running on the flat portion of the loop and establish a baseline heart rate, say 160 BPM.  Now, your objective is to run the entire loop and keep your heart rate within ±5 beats from your baseline.  This is a great way to keep in touch with your effort.  While it seems like the challenging part is to keep your heart rate in check going uphill, the real challenge is to make sure you pick up at the right spot at the and then fully maintain your effort on the downhill too.  It is harder than it sounds. 

Now – let’s eat! 

I have gotten several questions about what and when to eat prior to a run.  This varies based on time of day and length of the run.  The first thing to remember is that you don’t want run on an empty stomach.  A lot of people like to use running to lose weight and that is fine, but to get the most out of your run, your muscles need to be properly fueled. 

If you are running in the evening you can often skip a pre-run snack if you consume a healthy but slightly larger lunch during the day.  Also consider eating your lunch later so that you are eating closer to the time you run.  If you find that you are feeling depleted before an evening run and you are running 4-6 miles then a snack of 100 to 200 calories coming largely from carbs should hold you over.  That can come from ½ a PB&J sandwich, yogurt, ½ turkey sandwich or a number of other sources.  It is best to target eating this snack 1 to 2 hours before you start your run. 

If you are running in the morning you need to think about run length since long runs tend to be in the mornings.  For a run of 6 miles or less, eating your normal healthy breakfast 1 to 2 hours before you run should get you through the run with no problems.  Since breakfast is your first meal it will likely comprise about 20% to 25% of your total calorie intake for the day.  Oatmeal, toast, cereal, PB&J, are all good choices. 

As you start to increase your long runs you will need to increase your calorie intake.  One way to do this is by adding fruit.  So in addition to your bowl of oatmeal you may have a banana for an additional 100 calories. As your long runs increase to the point of 8 miles or longer, it makes sense to consume additional calories after the run to refuel and repair your muscles.  Chocolate milk is a great recovery drink since it provides both carbs (refuel) and protein (repair). 

This is also a good time in your training to begin testing which foods your stomach can handle before a run.  You shouldn’t do a 10 mile long run or race on an empty stomach but you don’t want to try a new food on race morning either.  Use this time to see which foods your body handles well and which ones cause problems. 

Finally, remember to hydrate.  If you run in the evening this can mean drinking extra water throughout the day and if you run in the morning you will need to drink when you get up.  A simple suggestion on water consumption is to drink 16 to 20 ounces of water, sports drink, or diluted fruit juice about 2 hours before the run.  Then your body can discharge what isn’t needed.  Right before you head out you can drink another 8 ounces.   These numbers will also change as the temperature increases. 

Later we will have a deeper conversation about water and food consumption but hopefully this will help you get started and not show up on the runs hungry or thirsty. 

Also, if you are still reading here is something fun.  A youtube video called the Sh!t Runners Say.  It would be sad if it wasn’t all true. 

Run well…


Shawn Herbig is an RRCA Certified Running Coach.  In his day job he owns a market research and data analytics firm called IQS Research. 

© 2013 Shawn Herbig