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How to Run Hills in a Race

A hill can pose a unique challenge during a race. Usually, the goal is to get up, over, and down the hill as quickly and efficiently as possible. A common strategy for many runners is to push harder on one part of the hill in an attempt to catch an opponent off guard. However, runners won’t do this blindly. They need to be familiar with their own strengths, and with the hill their running. Exerting too much too early will prove to be a disadvantage. This guide will detail how to approach, run, and conquer the hills in your course.

Pushing the Hills

As mentioned above, some runners like to push parts of the hill in an attempt to catch opponents by surprise. Below are three options on where to push, and the benefits of each:

  • Pushing the uphill: Pushing the uphill is a good way to drop struggling runners. It dictates when the efforts need to spike and easily reveals who can’t keep up.
  • Pushing the hill’s crest: This is a good way to get a jump at a time when tired runners often lose focus.
  • Pushing the downhill: This is often a great tactic used by strong downhill runners or those with stronger legs than their competition.

If you can learn how to run hills efficiently, you will excel in responding to your competition. Eventually, you’ll learn when it will be advantageous to push yourself. However, this experience isn’t going to happen overnight. Running hills efficiently will require planning, good form, and becoming familiar with how to distribute your effort. And before you can figure out where you can push the hill, you’ll need to know how to run it.

Planning

Before you get on the starting line, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the hills you’ll be up against. Run them beforehand if possible, and pay close attention to the following:

  • The number of hills on the course
  • How long it takes to run each hill
  • How steep each hill is
  • What kind of downhill or flat comes after each hill

Knowing what you’ll be up against will not only let you prepare mentally for the challenge, but it will give you a sense of how much energy you can expend on each uphill push without hitting the wall.

Form

The form for running hills during a race might not be the same as the form you use when you train. As opposed to your training, where you might want to take longer, more powerful strides to mimic your stride on flat ground, you’ll want to get up and over the hills as efficiently as possible in an actual race. To do this, you should shorten your stride and increase your cadence. The only exception to this is on very short hills, over which you might want to run fast in order to maintain your momentum.

Always remain tall and avoid bending forward at the waist when you run uphill. If you find yourself wanting to bend over, increase your cadence.

When running downhill in a race, lean forward so your body remains perpendicular to the hill. Avoid really long strides; these result in braking motions and muscle damage that can leave your legs deadened for the final kick. Keeping the cadence up will help you continue moving fast and smoothly.

Effort

Your effort going up a hill should be higher than on the flats, but not by too much. Usually, an uphill is followed by a downhill, which gives you a chance to recover from the uphill battle. In such situations, you can afford to work harder on the hill altogether. A hill that ends with a long stretch of flat is a much more challenging obstacle, and that hill should be treated with more caution. Familiarity with the hill will help you gauge how hard you can work on the hill and still be able to recover on the downhill or flat afterward.

Hot Tip: Carry Momentum from a Downhill

A smooth transition coming off a downhill can give you a jump on the runners around you. Especially if you are moving from a downhill onto another uphill, focus on staying upright and putting in a couple of strong strides at the bottom. You’ll find that you can carry that momentum for the next 5-15 meters.

Many runners make the mistake of starting out too fast at the beginning of a long- or medium-length hill. This typically leads to drastic slowing before the hill is over or being too tired to run the downhill aggressively — both of which result in a slower finish time. Fatigue builds exponentially faster as the gradient of a hill increases, so running conservatively at the start of a long hill is a much safer strategy.

To learn how to regulate your effort, try running with a steady effort over rolling hills. When you come from a flat to a hill, try to maintain the same effort as on the flat. Then gradually increase the effort until it’s comfortably hard.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you’re going to race over hilly terrain, you should train over hilly terrain. Not only will it help you learn how to control your effort and form on the hills, but it will make you a strong hill runner. You’ll also learn where you can push the hill — on the uphill, downhill, or on the crest — without over-exerting yourself. Essentially, while you learn how to run the hills, you’ll learn where you’re strongest pushing them along the way.

A hill can pose a unique challenge to any runner. Use the tips in this running guide to get up and over any hill quickly and efficiently.
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