Hills: The pain you love to hate

Updated: May 10

By: Emily Schmitz

Chaski Coach Emily is a Mountain and Trail Ultra Pikes Peak Marathon Podium Runner and Chaski & USATF Certified Coach. She is a Midwestern Flatlander turned Mountain Runner which she discovered while she was living in Bogotá, Colombia. Coach Emily believes that running defines no time - it's never too late to start loving it!

When I first started trail running, I dreaded going uphill. I would walk every uphill regardless of its grade, steepness, or runnability. I would walk anything that did not look pancake flat. On the rare occasion that I would attempt running anything above zero grade, my lungs would scream and burn, and hum like a broken whistle. I was amazed by athletes who could seemingly bounce up the mountainside as if their legs never tired. I was in awe of athletes who claimed that uphill segments were their favorite part of trail running. I felt these athletes must have something that I simply did not, nor could not ever attain. It admittedly took me many years to realize that hills, like any other aspect of running, are just another trainable skill. There is no secret to them. There is no special formula. And you will, with practice, get better at them.

It’s not rocket science. There are, however, some golden rules:

1. Run your own hill.

My golden rule number one is to never compare your hill running to anyone else. I promise that looking behind you, ahead of you, and around you to gauge the speed of other runners will not inspire you to run up a hill faster (trust me, I’ve tried this method). The more you look around, look at your watch, and stop to scope out your competition, the slower you will go. Focus on the task on hand, put your head down, and resist the temptation to constantly monitor the rest of the field. Since most hill running requires a consistent effort, distracting yourself from running will only be counterproductive.

2. Hills hurt. But they will make you stronger.

There is a saying going around the running world lately. It goes something like this: train hard, so racing feels easy. As a running coach and athlete myself, I want you to know that hills will almost always hurt. Hills will hurt even if you do hill repeats, hill intervals, and long hilly runs. This does not mean that you are not strong, not good at hills, or not ready to race. This only means that running at an incline is--simply put--more challenging than running on flat ground. Hills are as much a physical challenge as they are mental, and practicing them will make you strong at both.

3. Sometimes running is faster than walking. Sometimes it’s not.

Something paradoxical happens as hills become steeper. At first, maintaining our running form works well, allowing us to continue to advance quickly. But as the grade increases, our running starts to decline, morphing first into a slow jog, followed by an (even slower) heavy-footed slog that prevents us from advancing much at all. Knowing when to ditch the running and turn instead to hiking (or “power hiking” as trail runners might say) is essential to efficient hill running. The point at which you personally will fare better hiking as opposed to running is not textbook clear. It will take trial and error, and a good amount of practice until you start to understand your personal hill style.

The secret golden rule? Don’t skimp on training your power hiking. As runners, we tend to place any activity that is not running into the “easy effort” category. Power hiking is anything but this. Power hiking is just as it sounds: a powerful, strong, high-intensity hike. It can be just as strenuous as running, while simultaneously working different muscles. Training these muscles and learning how to hike efficiently with power and speed, is a skill just like any other.

4. Flat running is good for hills.

Hill running, like any other aspect of running, is good for us to a point. Overdo it, and you might start feeling slow and sluggish on all your runs. To counter this, work on improving your speed on flat surfaces. As you improve your speed across flat ground, your uphill times will start to drop. Working proper running technique--through drills, strength work, or just by running on flat surfaces--will have a positive impact on all aspects of your running, hills included.

See, its not rocket science, just requires some hard work.