Building hill workouts for your goal races

It’s nice when a goal race is on flat, normal terrain. A place like Chicago or New York City makes it easy, since all their races are on mostly flat ground.

Along with creating prime conditions for fast times (… well, weather permitting), training for the races is straightforward. Work on aerobic and neuromuscular fitness, work on tempo and speed, recover and feed yourself well, and you can crush it.

If a race has elevation shifts, things get a bit more complicated. We already see how weather and temperature impact races: If you train in clear and mild conditions, but then race in windy, hot/cold conditions, you’re not going to be trained to deal with the latter. Even when trained for warmer conditions, suitably hot races can negatively impact performance no matter what.

Likewise, if you train on flat ground, then try to run a race with hills (whether uphills or downhills or both), your performance and body will suffer as you likely have not trained at any length to handle hilly conditions. The longer the race, the greater the impact.

Runners who live in hilly locales face challenges with training speed, tempo or maximizing mileage because of the hills impacting speed. But this becomes an advantage when they run races featuring hills. Their bodies are well-trained to deal with the big elevation shifts. American runners in Seattle, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and mountainous regions like Colorado and Utah are better equipped to handle hills than runners in Chicago, Florida or New York City. (Plus, that never minds thinner air in higher altitude, also a key factor and a separate subject)

So, as a Chicago runner, I have to be mindful when I blow town for a race in a locale with hills. Vancouver is a clear example, with not only big elevation shifts early in the Vancouver Marathon course, but even the smaller elevation shifts later in the race are mountainous compared to the elevation changes in flatter Chicago.

One key reason these hills didn’t destroy me is that on multiple occasions I ran special workouts at nearby Cricket Hill. While Cricket Hill isn’t exactly a big hill (with only a 45 foot elevation climb), it does rise at a tough grade and when run on right, it can prepare you for running up and down hills.

So, how?

Now, it’s not quite enough to just run up and down a hill a bunch of times. Nor is it particularly effective to get on a treadmill, set it to an incline and then run at it for a bunch of minutes. It’s crude and better than nothing, but it doesn’t match what you will need to do in your goal race. You won’t likely just roll up and down the same elevation at an even clip, nor will you likely just run uphill at the same even, mild grade for several miles.

A smart training plan prepares you for what you’re actually going to do in the race you plan to run. And sometimes the things you need to do in that race aren’t straightforward and simple. There’s a specific set of challenging hills in specific parts of the race. The more you can do to prepare for those specifics, the better you’ll be able to run on race day.

For example, Vancouver requires a substantial early descent about 4-5 miles in. Then you undergo a substantial climb for about 1-2 miles. After a few miles, you then take a lengthy descent at a decent grade before things relatively level out.

Looking over the course map and thinking this through:

– I know the first descent will sneak up on us about 2-3 miles in.
– After that, we run about a mile before having to battle the Camosun uphill.
– I then get about 5 miles of relatively level running before having to tackle the downhill.

If I want to specifically work on these elevation shifts in a long run weekend workout, here is what I do.

1. I take an easy run to the Montrose Track near Cricket Hill. From where I live this takes about a couple miles, exactly the right distance.

2. Whether I stop and walk or just jog, I take an easy trip to the top of the hill. From there, I take a steady paced rep down the hill, whatever ‘steady’ means (ideally it’s around marathon effort, but go at the pace that allows you to use your glutes and control your motion and descent). Once I reach the edge of the grass, I turn around and at an easy effort head back up.

3. Repeat. And repeat. I’ll try and do at least 7 of these reps. Maybe more, depending on how much work I decide I need to simulate the downhill effort. I’ll spend no more than half an hour on this section of the workout.

4. After that, I either go to the track or use the path around the hill to run for about 10 minutes, to simulate the brief 2K-ish stretch between the initial downhill and the Camosun hill climb.

5. I go back to the hill, but this time I run my steady reps UP the hill, before going easy back down the hill and repeating. This section (like the last) will last about half an hour and should include at least 7 uphill reps, if not more.

6. After this, I stay downhill and run for about 5 miles or so, wherever it feels comfortable. I may even do the whole thing on the track (8000 meters!). But I make sure I’m back at Cricket Hill after the 5 miles are done.

7. I take it easy up to the top of Cricket Hill, and once again do a half hour’s worth of downhill reps, with an easy recovery effort back up the hill in-between. Again, 7 reps minimum, and more if suitable.

8. After that, I get back on the trail and run however much I feel I need to… whether that’s just a couple easy miles back home, or several more miles to fill out a full long run.

8a. Ideally, I run several miles after this since this should be a long run workout. A good barometer of how much time to run long after the workout is to take total time actually spent running in this workout, and subtract that from 150 minutes (2.5 hours). Whatever time is left, run that much time before ending the workout.

Regardless of my total effort on this workout, I simulated to my best ability the effort required in the hilly first half of the Vancouver Marathon. Add in a lengthy run on tired legs afterward, and this is better acclimation to the effort required in the race than your typical workout.


This approach can be adapted to any hilly urban race.

For example, if you’re training for the Boston Marathon, you can start a long workout at the hill with a bunch of downhill reps. Then go for a long run after which you do some uphill and downhill reps to simulate Heartbreak Hill before heading home. Perhaps you run a few more miles after the last hill work to better ingrain the feeling of finishing the race after the hill.

This approach takes a bit of creativity and critical thinking. The more hills and variety of hills you have available, the more options you have.

Someone living in Seattle, for example, can easily simulate the experience of starting Boston or running every inch of Heartbreak Hill, with Seattle’s bigger, neighborhood size hills.

If you live in Pittsburgh you probably find the idea of hill work laughable, since just about every inch you run is up or down a hill. You’re probably seeking out a track or treadmill to better simulate the flatter-than-thou conditions of the Chicago Marathon while training for that race.

In Chicago (assuming you’re not making a long drive to Barrington like other runners)… you need to get a little more creative. For south siders, the Soldier Field Sledding Hill and the Swallow Cliff Stairs are probably your best bet. Cricket Hill is the best most north siders can do.

Train the way you want to race, and train for the terrain you have to run on.

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One thought on “Building hill workouts for your goal races

  1. […] a flat place like Chicago I do some special workout planning for races like this. Whatever you do to prepare, be warned: To run this race well, you have got to be experienced in […]

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