How To Prepare For A Hilly Race

Six years ago, I was training for my first Boston Marathon. I was incorporating tempos, intervals and long runs into my 40-50 mile weeks (I peaked at 55 miles). The only missing component were the hills. At the time, I was stationed in Baghdad, Iraq – and while I was fortunate enough to be on the largest American base in the country (which afforded me miles and miles of road to run on!), it was flat as a pancake.


View of some of the palaces on one of my long runs!

There was one hill (man-made) called “Signal Hill” which US forces used for all the long-range signal equipment. Signal Hill had a paved road that was roughly .3 miles uphill (steep uphill!). And at two points going up the hill, there were paved roads around the hill.

This hill became my best friend. Rather than do hill repeats once a week, I made it a point to run up that hill at least once each run – and most runs 2-3x. It didn’t matter if it was an easy run, recovery run or long run – I was running up and down that hill.

Fast forward to the 2009 Boston Marathon. My husband was running beside me around mile 19-20. I had never seen Heartbreak Hill in person nor did I know the exact point it comes in the race. We had just finished a bit of climbing and I saw a sign that indicated we had crested Heartbreak. I looked at my husband and asked in disbelief – and with the biggest grin EVER – “That was Heartbreak Hill?”.

Finishing Boston in 2009 with a HUGE smile!

Finishing Boston in 2009 with a HUGE smile!


You can train on hills regardless if your goal race is flat, rolling or hilly. Training on them will make you a stronger and faster runner. Period. Sure, your training paces may end up being slower because you are constantly running up and down hills, but it will pay off on race day. And I’d much rather slower training paces and a faster race – then faster training and a slower race!

We love them.
We hate them.
They make us strong.
They make us weak.
Today I choose to embrace hills.
– Hal Higdon

I think the phrase “hill work” can be overwhelming. But the truth is – there’s no wrong way to do hill work. It doesn’t have to be anything detailed or specific – just find the hills. Do hill repeats, add some hills to the end of a run, throw them into long runs, include rolling hills in your tempo runs. The most important thing to remember is that you need to start incorporating them early – and often – into your training cycle for you to reap the benefits. hills

Here are some of the things I’ve done (or am doing) to ensure I was/am ready for the Boston Hills.

Always choose the hilly route in training. It’s easy to make excuses or reasons why you should avoid the hills – it’s a long run and your legs will be tired enough from the 20 miles, you had a hard run yesterday and want to keep it easy today, you’ll do hills tomorrow and so on. But, just remember that the more you do hills in training, the stronger you will become. It doesn’t need to be an all-out effort up the hills – keep it at an easy effort so you are still honoring the recovery/easy day.

hill climbs

– Tempo on Rollers. This was a change I made in the fall and I felt like it made a HUGE difference in my strength on hills. Previously, I had always completed my tempo runs on a pancake flat stretch of road about 2 miles from my house. In the fall, I opted to stay on the main road where there are a few long rollers in each direction. Nothing major – maybe 25-50 feet in elevation change. But enough where you are teaching your body to get comfortable running a specific pace as you climb. Initially, my pace slowed, but within a couple of months, I was feeling stronger and having some of the best tempo runs ever.

– Traditional Hill Repeats. This is perfect if you have even one good-sized hill where you live/run. Incorporate some repeats a few times during your training cycle in lieu of a planned interval or tempo run. It can be as simple as: run hard up the hill, recover slowly as you run down. Repeat. The longer the hill, the less the number of reps you should focus on doing.

– Hill Repeats on the Treadmill. No good hills to run on? Consider getting on the treadmill! My Monday runs are typically on the treadmill these days. Rather than keep it at a steady elevation from start to finish, I incorporate hill climbs. For example, last Monday’s run was 12 miles. I ran 1 mile easy as a warmup and then did 20 x 1-minute climbs at 4.5%. No change in pace during these climbs. I would follow each 1-minute climb with 3-minutes at 1% incline. Nothing too intense or exhausting, but enough to practice some steep climbs.

– Embrace the hills during your long runs. This Saturday I’m scheduled to run my longest training run of the cycle – 23 miles. While I don’t have the exact route planned (I never plan my routes out ahead of time), I intend to do at least two loops of a stretch of road that has three back-to-back-to-back long hills (each one is about .3 miles long) over the course of 1.5 miles. I’ll likely do the first one around mile 10 and the second around mile 20 to simulate the Newton Hills in Boston.

Here are a few good articles about hill training:
Hit the Hills, Reap the Benefits
Early-Season Hill Work Equals Race Day Speed

Any tips on how you train for a hilly race? 

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    5 thoughts on “How To Prepare For A Hilly Race

    1. When training for my last NYCM, I did ALL my tempo runs and ALL my long runs in Central Park. Although I still suffered quite a bit on the QB bridge and [especially] while going up on Fifth Avenue, I had a great great race and I’m sure I’d have suffered much more hadn’t I trained this way.
      Question for you: I’m running the NJ marathon next month and, for personal convenience, I still do my tempo runs and most of my long runs in Central Park. Do you think that will have a negative effect in NJ (which is flat and so it requires you to use the same muscles over and over)? Any suggestions for flat marathons? I never ran one and, although people always assume flat=easy, I’m still a bit worried…

    2. I love that story about running up and down signal hill! You definitely made the most of what you had and that is what any resourceful runner does!! I actually love hills. I’ve embraced them because I live in such a ridiculously hilly area that they are completely unavoidable. The hills definitely make you stronger and have become my secret weapon in racing!!
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