Today, Coach Sage Canaday will be discussing a topic that is of great importance to runners participating in road marathons or half marathons: tackling hills. Whether you’re a seasoned runner or just starting out, understanding the ideal strategy for approaching hills can make a significant difference in your performance. Let’s dive right in!

So, what would be the ideal strategy for tackling a hill in a road marathon or half marathon?

Should you increase the effort and heart rate on the uphill and recover on the following downhill, or maintain a consistent effort and keep the heart rate up the hill? This is a great question that applies to both road and trail running. Keep reading for my full thoughts on these questions!

The Challenge of Hills:

While the focus of this discussion is on road running, it is worth noting that trail running introduces additional variables such as technical terrain and unpredictable weather conditions. However, whether it’s a hilly trail race or a flat road marathon, the fundamental principles of tackling hills remain relevant.

Monitoring Breathing and Perceived Exertion:

The question of whether to increase effort and heart rate on uphill sections or maintain a consistent effort throughout the course is a common dilemma for runners. In road marathon races such as Chicago, Berlin, or Rotterdam, the terrain tends to be predominantly flat and even, allowing for consistent pacing and easier performance monitoring. However, when hills are introduced into the mix, they bring a level of inefficiency to your running.

Rather than relying solely on heart rate data, it can be more effective to pay attention to breathing rate and perceived exertion when tackling hills. Heart rate monitors may not always provide accurate readings, so focusing on how your body feels can guide your effort level. Uphills will increase muscle tension, particularly in the calves and hamstrings, while downhill sections may stress the quads. Adapting your form accordingly can help maintain efficiency.

Running uphill naturally requires you to slow down, leading to an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, and energy expenditure. Unfortunately, the additional effort you put into climbing uphill doesn’t fully recover on the subsequent downhill sections. Unlike riding a bike downhill, where you can catch your breath and relax, running downhill still demands exertion and can put stress on your leg muscles. Thus, the advantage of downhill running doesn’t fully compensate for the time lost on the uphill sections.

Consider the Type of Hill (as well as your strengths and weaknesses):

Therefore, your approach to hills should take into consideration your strengths and weaknesses as a runner, and your training should aim to minimize weaknesses while enhancing your strengths. When facing hills, even if they are relatively small, pacing yourself becomes essential. Let’s take the example of the Boston Marathon, where the Newton Hills between miles 16 and 20 pose significant challenges.

It’s reasonable to expect that you will lose over a minute due to the uphill sections, and it’s unlikely that you will be able to regain all of that time on the subsequent downhills. However, it’s important to note that Boston is a net downhill race overall.

The amount by which you need to slow down on uphill sections depends on your climbing ability and the grade of the hill.

Steeper grades, such as 5% or more, will require a more significant decrease in pace, while a 3% grade might be noticeable but still manageable. In general, when running uphill, it’s advisable not to push your heart rate too high or experience excessive fatigue. Instead, focus on your breathing rate and perceived exertion, as heart rate monitors may not always provide accurate readings.

The Impact of Uphill and Downhill Running:

Running uphill can increase muscle tension in the calves, hamstrings, and quads, while downhill running may stress the quads more. It’s important to adjust your running form accordingly. Swing your arms more when tackling uphill sections to help with momentum, and relax your arms when running downhill. Maintain a slight forward lean from the ankles for both uphill and downhill running, which helps optimize your biomechanics.

Remember that conserving energy and pacing yourself on uphill sections is crucial to avoid depleting your glycogen stores or crossing your lactate threshold, as these can lead to muscle fatigue and cramping.

Especially in marathons, where you have a long distance to cover, hills that appear in the mid to late stages of the race can be particularly challenging.

However, there are exceptions to this general strategy.

If you find yourself at the very end of a race, such as a half marathon or a shorter distance, and encounter a small hill, you might consider sprinting up it. This can provide an advantage if you’re a strong climber or help you create a gap between you and other runners!

The Take Away:

To summarize, the ideal strategy for tackling hills in a road marathon or half marathon involves pacing yourself and consciously slowing down on uphill sections to conserve energy and avoid excessive fatigue. Adjust your effort based on your breathing rate and perceived exertion rather than solely relying on heart rate monitoring.

While you can gain back some time on the downhills, it’s important to acknowledge that hills make the overall course slower and less efficient than a perfectly flat one. Adapt your approach based on your individual strengths, weaknesses, and the specific characteristics of the race course.

I hope this information proves valuable in your training and racing endeavors. Remember, preparation is key, and understanding how to approach hills effectively can set you up for success.