How to make hill running easier (and even enjoyable)

Our expert team explain how to get better at hill running, whether you’re trying to run up hill or charging down.

For many, running ticks all the boxes. It’s good for you, it’s cheap, it can be friendly and accommodating. Everybody is welcome when it comes to going for a run. 

But one element may cause trepidation, and that is hill running. Like them or loathe them, hills are hard to avoid, whether you’re running uphill or down.  

The good news, though, is that hill running is easy to get ready for, and running uphill and downhill can be rewarding. In fact, you’ll wonder why you spent so much time avoiding it. 

What’s more, hill running strengthens a key set of muscles, namely your calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Youll also strengthen your hip flexors and Achilles tendons.

A man running up a coastal hillCredit: Shutterstock / Real Sports Photos
With the right preparation, hill running can easy and fun

5 ways to make hill running easier

Claire Maxted, author of The Ultimate Trail Running Handbook (£11.99, Amazon), says: “I mainly like hills because it means I don’t have to run the whole route.

“I like to hike up the hills, take in the great views (usually with a photo or three) then I very much enjoy the exhilaration of running down them. Hills mix things up and make the run more interesting and adventurous.” 

To help you enjoy the hills as much as she does, Maxted suggests you consider these five elements: 

1. Don’t be afraid to walk

Don’t think you have to run up the hills. As soon as your breath gets out of control, drop into a brisk walk, hands on knees, which is the same effort as when you were running on the flat – it’s more efficient and all the professional mountain runners do it.

2. Make friends with the hill

“This is something that I learned from a guy I interviewed a long time ago called ‘Tony the Fridge’, who ran marathons with an actual fridge strapped to his back,” says Maxed. “You have to say, ‘Hi hill, I’m privileged to run up you today because not everyone can’.”

Try this without a fridge on your back and everything will seem much easier.

3. Use running poles

Using hiking or running poles on your hill runs will help keep you upright, and open up your chest and lungs on the uphill. It also gives you added power as you push down on the poles with each footstep.

On the downhills, running poles are useful for balance and take some of the strain away from your joints and muscles.

My poles of choice are the Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ Running Poles (£180 on the Black Diamond website, but Amazon usually has them for less).

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4. Incorporate hills into your training

This could be running back up and down any significant hills that you come across during a longer run or going out for a specific hill repetition session where you run to the base of a gentle, runnable hill and run for 30-60 seconds up it 4-10 times.

This gets your legs stronger for running uphill and teaches your mind not to fear them.

5. Break hill runs up

Break long hills down into chunks instead of focussing on reaching the top. This could be getting to a certain tree or moving for 30 footsteps before taking a short break. Breaking it down into manageable chunks will motivate you to the top before you know it.

Hill running technique

Running uphill

I learned to run uphill in the 1980s in Folkestone – and let me tell you there a are a lot of steep hills in that coastal town. 

My coach Trevor Rodwell, a former international sprinter, perfectly summarised all you need to know when he said: “Focus on the ground two metres [6ft] in front of you, try to keep your hips high and as upright as possible, and drive your arms.”  

It’s worked a treat ever since, and indeed I even ran the European Masters Off-road championships in the Alps, which involved running more than five miles (8.8km) straight up a mountain, finishing at 6,500ft (1,980m) 

Drive off your toes, focus on a spot just in front of you and stay relaxed. If you need to walk (as I did), not a problem: even the winner of a mountain run does that. 

Paul Larkins running in the AlpsCredit: Paul Larkins
For Paul, there’s nothing more satisfying than conquering a hill

My weekend running in the Alps with more than 200 runners aged over 45 confirmed one thing when it comes to getting better at running uphill. And that is: take up cycling. It does wonders for your leg strength, which in turn will make you a more efficient hill climber. 

Running downhill

Get this and it’s a skill that will reward you with faster times. It’s all about confidence and practise.  

A run with Nicolas Mermoud a couple of years ago taught me all I needed to know for running downhill. He invented Hoka shoes and knows everything when it comes to mountain running.  

“It’s all about focus and arms,” he says, explaining that you need to look at the ground two metres in front, lean forward, and let yourself go.  

Windmill or hold your arms out like wings for balance and you’ll be fine. There’s amazing research that basically concludes your brain will send enough information fast enough to your feet that you’ll naturally compensate for rocks and roots and anything that’s in front of you. It takes practice, but it does work. 

A note on shoes for hill running

It’s worth thinking about specialist shoes if you’re going to run a lot of hills that venture off-road. Shoes like the Salomon Sense Ride 5 offer stability thanks to the specialist lacing system – wires which can be adjusted to create a snug fit. As a result, the shoe holds your foot in place as you descend steep hills or run along the edge, which is known as contouring. Plus, they have toe guards to offer protection from rocks and roots.  

Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

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Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.