Coach Josh's Tips On Embracing Hill Repeats

by Coach Josh Maio (AKA Coach Squatch)

Hills glorious hills … you avoid them whenever possible, you dread them when you look at the elevation charts of races, and they are the bane of your existence.  I bet most of you just threw up in your mouth a little just thinking of your “favorite” hill just now.

I know, it’s disgusting.  

As part Sasquatch, my long-given nickname, hills are part of our natural habitat and we love them, but it wasn’t always the case.  I too had a major aversion to hills for a long time, but eventually came to see the light of the truth--

No matter how much you hate them, hills will make you a better, stronger, and healthier runner.

It sounds ridiculous and there's no way to sugar coat it but I assure you, embracing the hill helps. Don’t believe me? Here’s why..

hill repeats

Reason #1 - Hills are incredible for building leg strength and endurance, not to mention the fact that they work your stabilizing muscles and are amazing at keeping your legs healthy and strong during training.  I mean, who doesn’t want strong legs?  Not everyone likes going to the gym to do squats and the like, so why wouldn't you do more hill work? Truthfully though, hills will keep you healthy throughout training.

hill repeats

Reason #2 - Hills are a close second to long runs when it comes to training your mind for a half-marathon or marathon.  You have to love hating them. They can be difficult and sometimes, they just might break you. But they can also be a place where you can gain a psychological edge over the other runners on the course.  

I was a longtime hill hater until one day it just clicked when I realized just how much other people hated them. So I decided that hills would be the thing where I would try to excel while others crumbled.  If you train hard on hills, they become your friends and turns out, they're the great equalizer come race day!! Furthermore, what goes up must come down and those downhills give your legs and lungs the opportunity to recover a bit whilst maintaining your pace.  

Train your mind for this work and it will serve you well for any race you look to take on.

Mindsets for Mastery (Say these things to yourself whenever you feel the urge to crawl into the fetal position mid repetition like Kelly does...):

Kelly LOVES hill repeats.

Kelly LOVES hill repeats.

  • The faster I get to the top and get it done the sooner it is over.”

  • I REFUSE to let the course beat me.”

  • My personal favorite,“This is where I will pass the most people and intimidate the pack.” Hill Shaming is a thing … don’t be #hillshamed, do the hill shaming.

  • And if those don’t work, just do what my team, Gotham City Runners, does, and just blame me. Scream out, “I HATE YOU, COACH SQUATCH!!” … doesn’t always help though, just tends to be a waste of oxygen.

hill repeats

Reason #3 - We all want to look effortless when we run, just like a gazelle, and hill work is a good way to get us there.  Hills are a natural way to improve your form as your body is forced to run on the mid to forefoot, maintaining good posture as you climb, driving your knees, using your arms/hands to help with pace. By focusing on all of these different mechanical pieces and working on the efficiency of your form you will be that much stronger of a runner than the runners who avoid hills.

So what are some of the things you can focus on to help improve your hill shaming prowess? Here are some tips from Coach Josh/Squatch for the next time you are hill running.  Test drive some of these and you'll see EXACTLY what I'm talking about.

(You’ll be surprised how well they actually do work.)

  1. Pushing Is Better Than Pulling: A simple way to think of this is which is easier: pushing or pulling someone on a bike up the hill?  Pushing is ALWAYS easier.  Adjust your posture so you are driving up the hill, leaning into it a little (think Olympic Ski Jumper), and feel your foot strike, which should be roughly mid to forefoot.  Another little trick to this is tilting your head down so your eyes train on a spot on the ground roughly 10-feet in front of you that way you have that additional 10-11 pounds of weight moving forward rather than dragging behind you.

  2. Focus On Your Arms: When your legs start to fail, your arms will see you through.  It’s an interesting mental trick to focus solely on your arm swing instead of being hung up on your fatiguing legs.  Really hone in on what your arms are doing and how you are swinging them and your legs will just keep doing their job.  What should you focus on exactly?  Relax your shoulders and arms, your hands and wrists should graze your hips as they swing, and keep the elbow angle at about 90-degrees. Key in on your forearms swinging from parallel to the ground to perpendicular and your biomechanics will keep your legs on task.  

  3. Drive Your Knees:  The flatter the stride is the harder the climb will be.  Drive your knees and enjoy the equal and opposite reaction as they propel you up the hill!!  Also, not to go back to them again, but your arms will help with this as well.  The harder you pump them, the more drive your legs will have.

  4. Fast Hands = Fast Feet: The faster you pump those arms, the faster your feet will move, and the quicker the turnover, which means the sooner it’s over!  Also, quick, short strides equates to greater uphill running efficiency, which means you’ll be able to run faster longer.  

  5. Speed Up Your Breathing BEFORE You Even Get Working: Try speeding up your breathing rate before you even start fully climbing so when the work starts you aren't fighting for air when your body needs the oxygen.  There is nothing worse than being a quarter of the way up a hill and already feeling like you need to lay down and roll back to the bottom, because you are completely gassed.  Speed up your breathing and, despite how goofy you will feel for a few moments, once the uphill work begins you won’t have to deal with that big gasp for air that inevitably comes about a third of the way up and completely throws off your rhythm.

  6. Work BEYOND the Crest: One of the most common mistakes in working hills is taking your foot off the gas before you even hit the top.  It’s common to let up when you realize that relief is coming at the apex and you are so close, but what really happens is you actually slow down too soon, kill your pace, make yourself work harder getting to the top and after it, and spend the next quarter mile trying to get your breathing settled and finding your running rhythm all over again.  DO NOT LET UP until you’re about 50-100m AFTER the crest that way you maintain your pace and rhythm you fought to achieve while starting to recover when the terrain flattens out and/or declines. Another place where focusing and using your arms come in handy.  I thought we were talking about RUNNING though?

hill repeats

LOVE what others HATE: This is one near and dear to Coach Squatch ... Hills are most often where people back off, fold, give up, or let themselves fade in a race. They are feared like nothing else and unjustly blamed for bad races, etc.  This is exactly why I love them.  There is something so satisfying listening to people gripe about hills being a problem and personally revelling in them.  Yes, this is usually followed by, “you’re nuts,” or “insane,” or something to that effect, but we’re runners, isn’t that who we are anyway?  This is the good kind of crazy and enjoy the hill shaming.  

This is Coach Josh telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself and start having fun. What a guy.

Coach Josh Maio is head coach and co-founder of Gotham City Runners. He's also the man who listens and makes Kelly laugh when she cries about how hard it is to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He's basically a saint. For more info on Saint Coach Josh Maio, you can contact him by clicking here.