Hilly race on the horizon? Conquer it!

Fall is around the corner for us here in the U.S. and that means one thing: race season. Okay, fine! It also means, sweaters, boots, pumpkin spice everything, apple and pumpkin picking, raking leaves…you get the picture.

But, seriously. A lot of folks out there are getting ready for that 5k or half marathon that’s been highlighted on the calendar since registration was complete. I’ve also been training for the Portland Marathon which is under a month away. I’m shooting for a significant PR (personal record; although people say “personal best” more often, so I feel like PB should be used more often), and think I can hit my goal, but there is one thing that I just help but shiver when I think about it: the hills.

Hills suck. But they’re also incredibly helpful for building strength and making you a better and stronger runner. So maybe they don’t suck as much. In fact, I’ve learned to love hills, mostly because I fully appreciate them for my running and the also for reason they are there: the Earth doesn’t want to be boring and flat. I don’t blame you, Earth.

Portland Marathon Elevation Map

As you can see from the elevation chart, the marathon course is actually quite flat, but when I’m trying to achieve a significant PB (…nope, can’t say it again. I just think of peanut butter) any inclines and hills have to be considered and factored into training. The inclines on the marathon course aren’t steep and I actually run that first one, between mile 1.5 to mile 3, about 3-4 times a week as the route takes me to the waterfront where I often run. While I may have run the incline tons of times at a a pace that is faster than what I’ll be running the marathon in, I haven’t then continued to complete a 26.2 mile run. Again, every physical stress-inducing factor should be considered which is why I’ve been incorporating hills into my fast runs and long runs since I transitioned from ultra training, with the culmination of my 12 hour back in July, to marathon training.


When I’m short on time or have a moderate day, these are two hills near our apartment that I utilize often. The one on the left is quite punishing which the camera obviously doesn’t capture. I’ll do hill sprints or a mile or 2 of just up and down. 

When incorporating hills into my runs, I try to mimic the race as much as possible. This includes, how I’m going to approach the hills. Am I going to sprint up the inclines like a mad man during the marathon? No. So I don’t do that in training either. Instead, I run at the same effort which often times slows my pace down just a bit, but at least I know that I’m not using extra energy to get through the inclines. When running the hills at the same effort, I’ll be able to get back to the pace I need to be at once my breathing gets back to normal and my heart rate calms. If I were to run the hills at the same pace that I was maintaining before, I’m entirely likely to exhaust my legs just enough to really slow me down later in the race.

Trails are a great way to practice running hills and they’re much softer on the joints. Don’t avoid practicing on the road though if that’s what your race will be run on.

I also want to run the inclines at around the same time they’re going to appear in the race. So, if we look at the above elevation chart again, the second steep incline that Portland Marathoners will face starts at mile 15 and levels off at about the 16.5 marker. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to find a hill when I’m at mile 15 of my long run. What it means is that I want to plan to run a hill towards the end of my long run when my legs have already been moving for well over an hour and when I still have a good amount of miles to cover even when I reach the top of the hill. That way, I’ll be able to practice getting my breathing back to how it was and getting my pace to what I was maintaining before the hill or perhaps picking up the pace slightly which is great practice for running at goal pace on very tired legs. I want you to keep in mind that I train like this for shorter distance races and longer distance races, certainly not just the marathon event.

If your 5k, 10k, half-marathon, marathon, ultra, or other race has an elevation chart that isn’t flat-lining, it is my most humble and unprofessional advice that you would be the wiser to become best friends…or at least something less than enemies…with hills and inclines. If you experience knee problems or other physical issues that make hill running extremely difficult, please don’t try bearing the pain and running them anyway just because you read my blog post. Also, proper form is important; I try to run with my back as straight as it would be when I’m running on flat ground. This keeps the diaphragm open as well.

Not my picture, but what an awesome hill!

So let’s hear it. What’s your experience with hills? Any events coming up with menacing inclines that you’re worried about? Do you have any stories to share? Let’s talk about conquering the hills instead of them conquering us.


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