How to master hill running and build your endurance

Trail runners love them, and many road runners loathe them – me included. I'm talking hills. If I have a choice, I'll take the gradual climb over a steep rise any day, but learning how to conquer both are important if you want to make it to the top.

Steve Dinneen knows how to handle hills. The two-time Great Ocean Road Running Festival (GOR) men's Half Marathon winner and experienced running coach has racked up some enviable race bling, including the Melbourne Marathon Half Marathon in 2014, the 2018 Wellness Walk and Research Run and has represented Australia in the 10,000m Ekiden relay in Japan in 2011.

Build your base

To prepare for an endurance race like the GOR's ultra, marathon or half marathon Dinneen says practice makes perfect.

"The first step is to get some long steady runs over flat or small rolling hills into your legs and build up your fitness base," says Dinneen.

"Once the fitness starts to improve, the next step is to get more strength in your legs by running very some bigger hills on your runs. As you become stronger you can work the uphill sections harder, which will help you improve as part of a long runs."

Three step guide to running hills

Dinneen says there are several factors to running up and down hills well. The first is your fitness and specific conditioning to running them. If you are not in good shape to run up and down hills you will not do it well and increase your chances of getting injured.

"The first step is to get fit and build into doing hill work to avoid injuries," he advises. "The second step is getting your pacing right. If you push way too hard too early, it might end in tears."

It's hard to know what pace you should aim for when you first start out running hills so Dinneen's advice is go slow.

"You can always build into the pace as you get towards the top if it feels to easy, but you'll will be glad you started out slow."


Body placement

The third step is to work on your hill running form and technique. Dinneen says arms, hips and foot placement are important in going up and down hills.

"The angle of your elbow and arm carriage varies depending on whether you are going up or down hill," explains Dinneen.

"To run faster downhill, lower your forearm carrying angle (elbow joint straightens) and when running up hill you do the opposite in raising your forearm carrying angle (elbow joint bends more)."

"Uphill running means you need to lean forwards into the hill without bending from the hips and land on the mid to front of your feet. When running downhill, the further you lean forwards from your chest the faster you'll go, so it's important to practice and get a pace you're comfortable running downhill at."

He says runners generally land on their mid-foot running downhill. And if you need a break, take a break. For some runners, it is quicker to walk the hill in sections than run.  

Four hill running training sessions

There are lots of training programs available to help you to prepare for hilly running events. Here's four sessions recommended by Coach Dinneen:

Run Number one – a long steady run with rolling hills.

Run Number two – a session with 15 minute warm up and cool down, followed by either one of the following workouts:

  • 30 minutes at 15km pace;
  • 40 minutes run with first 10 minutes at marathon pace, next 10 minutes at half marathon pace, 10 minutes at 15km pace and 10 minute at 10km pace; or
  • 10 x one minute on (5km pace) / one minute off (half marathon pace)

Run Number three and four – lots of easy jogging to help recover and build fitness. These are vital to do.

Don't forget to warm-up and down

Hill running can more intense than normal running so build in some of the following pre-race dynamic exercises and post-run static stretches to help stay injury free:

Pre-race dynamic exercises

Warm-up jog followed by high-knees, heel flicks, internal and external hip rotations and some strides or run throughs.

Post-race static stretches

Stretch the quads, calves, glutes and piriformis, and use a spikey ball under the feet and glutes, and finish with a foam roll of the quads and glutes.

The high of crossing the finish line inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. Whether you're a newbie to the running scene or a seasoned athlete, Laura brings the latest running trends and gear to readers across Australia. With a day job in the corporate world and a busy toddler, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to sharpen her mind and challenge her body.

Follow Laura Hill on Twitter