Running up hills can seem intimidating. It can make your legs burn and your lungs work overtime. Because of this, many marathon runners avoid hills in their training. But hills can actually make you a better, faster marathon runner—if done well. 

If you are preparing for a marathon and you’re looking to incorporate hill running into your training, this guide is for you.

First, we will show why embracing inclines could be the key to your success. Then give some practical tips on hill running training for marathon runners! Ultimately you’ll learn all it takes to sprinkle it in your training plan.

Benefits of Hill Running for Marathon Runners

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Marathon running is not just about the distance; it’s a comprehensive test of a runner’s strength, endurance, speed, and mental grit. And while flat terrain running is a staple of any marathoner’s regimen, incorporating hill workouts can provide a significant edge. 

Here are some hill training benefits that every marathon enthusiast should know:

1. Enhanced Muscle Strength

Running uphill requires your muscles, particularly your calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, to work harder than they would on a flat surface. 

Over time, it leads to improved muscle tone and strength, enabling you to tackle the marathon distance more easily.

2. Increased Cardiovascular Endurance

 The heart has to pump faster to send blood (and therefore oxygen) to those working muscles when you’re pushing against gravity. 

As a result, hill running can help enhance your cardiovascular system, making it more efficient during longer runs.

3. Boosted Speed and Power

Think of hill running as nature’s version of resistance training. With regular hill workouts, you’ll not only become proficient at climbing but also improve your flat-surface speed. The added strength and power translate to faster paces on level grounds.

4. Improved Running Form

Hills naturally encourage better running posture. To ascend, you’ll likely lift your knees higher, lean into the hill slightly, and push off more aggressively with each step. This form correction can benefit your overall running mechanics.

5. Mental Toughness

Hills are challenging. Consistently training on them builds mental toughness in running. Come race day, when you encounter a tough stretch, you’ll be mentally equipped to push through, recalling those hill sessions you conquered during training.

6. Versatility in Race Strategy

Not all marathons are flat. By incorporating hill training, you’ll be prepared for any race profile, giving you the confidence to face undulating courses or surprise inclines.

7. Breathing Efficiency

Regular hill workouts can lead to enhanced lung capacity and better oxygen utilization. This means your body becomes more adept at taking in and using the oxygen it needs, a critical factor in endurance sports.

Types of Hill Workouts

Integrating various types of hill workouts during marathon preparation can significantly boost performance. Here are some popular hill workout variations:

1. Hill Sprints

This involves running very short ( around 50m) but intense uphill sprints, usually less than 30 seconds in duration. To do it, you’ll find a steep hill that will really make your legs burn. 

Sprint up the near 90% of your maximum effort, then walk or jog back down for recovery. 

The intensity builds leg strength and power. 

The short duration works on fast-twitch muscle fibers and running form. This translates to more leg speed and turnover capability in your marathon race.

2. Long Hill Repeats

For long hill repeats, the goal is to build strength and endurance, as opposed to the power developed during hill sprints. 

Find a long, moderate-grade hill for these. Run hard up the hill at around 5K effort for 60-90 seconds. Then jog back down for recovery. 

The sustained effort on the climb works different muscle groups than flat road running. Over time, this builds tremendous strength in your glutes, quads, calves, and core—key climbing muscles. It also develops mental toughness in running, pushing through the burning sensation.

3. Hill Circuits

This combines the benefits of hill sprints and longer repeats by mixing short and long intervals into a continuous loop. For example, you might sprint up one hill, then go right into a 60-second hard climb up the next hill. 

Keep repeating with minimal recovery between sprints and climbs. This builds power, strength, and endurance through a blend of hard efforts. The continuous nature also provides a great workout when you’re short on time.

4. Progression Runs

They are a great way to build mental stamina for pushing through fatigue during a climb. Find a long, steady hill that will take 2-3 minutes to climb. 

Start your ascent at an easy jog, then slowly build your effort, finishing near maximum at the top. Walk back down, then repeat 2-3 times.

Learning to push harder as fatigue sets in translates directly to marathons, especially hilly courses where climbing strength is so vital.

How to Select the Right Hills for Training


To maximize the benefits of hill running and minimize the risk of injury, you must choose hills for your specific training needs. 

Here are some tips on how to select the right hills for training.

1. Gradient

The gradient of a hill (mostly expressed as a percentage or a degree) is the measure of how steep it is. For example, a 10% gradient means that the hill rises 10 meters for every 100 meters of horizontal distance. 

The optimal gradient for hill training depends on your goal and fitness level.  Here are some recommendations:

Generally speaking, steeper hills are better for developing power and speed, while gentler hills are better for improving endurance and stamina.

2. Length

The length of the hill also depends on your goals. For instance, short ones (50-100 meters) are best for hill sprints to build power and speed. Whereas, long ones (400 meters to a mile or more) are great for building aerobic endurance and mental grit.

3. Terrain

The terrain of a hill can be smooth or rough, hard or soft, even or uneven. The optimal terrain for hill training depends on your preference and comfort level. Here are some of the options:

Overall, smooth and hard surfaces are better for maintaining speed and efficiency, while rough and soft surfaces are better for challenging your balance and stability.

4. Safety Considerations

The optimal safety level for hill training depends on your common sense and caution. Generally, you should consider factors like:

5. Accessibility

The hill should be in a convenient place, so you can incorporate it into your regular training without much hassle. One that’s too far away might demotivate you from using it frequently.

6. Variability

If you can find an area with multiple hill profiles, that’s a bonus. It allows you to switch between short, steep sprints and longer, gradual climbs. This provides a well-rounded hill training experience.

Proper Hill Running Techniques

Running up and down hills requires proper form and technique to optimize performance and prevent injury. Here are some hill running techniques:

Running up hills

Running down hills

Tips on Maintaining Efficiency and Avoiding Common Mistakes

When doing hill running, there are things you need to know to maintain its efficiency. Here are some of our recommendations:

  1. Control your descent. It’s tempting to let gravity do all the work downhill, but this can lead to overstriding and increased impact. 
  2. Uphills can be taxing, leading to shallow breathing. Try to maintain deep, rhythmic breaths. This ensures your muscles get the oxygen they need.
  3. Avoid over-pushing, which can tire you out quickly. Instead, maintain a steady, sustainable effort.
  4. On trails or uneven hills, always be vigilant of where you’re stepping to avoid trips, slips, or ankle rolls.
  5. Incorporate strength training, especially for the core and lower body. It will help improve your hill-running form and reduce muscle fatigue.
  6. Ensure you have good flexibility, especially in the hip flexors, to maintain proper form, especially when going uphill.

How to Combine Hill Workouts with Marathon Training

Incorporating hill workouts into a marathon preparation can significantly boost performance as mentioned earlier. 

Here are some tips for blending them seamlessly:

1. Understand the Training Phases

Typically, marathon training is divided into different phases: base building, strength/speed development, peak training, taper, and race day. Incorporate hill workouts primarily during the strength/speed development phase, but you can sprinkle them into other phases as well.

2. Integrate, Don’t Replace

When you incorporate hill workouts, make sure you’re not replacing essential long runs or recovery days. Instead, replace some of the general aerobic or speed sessions with hill work.

3. Frequency

In the thick of marathon training, aim for one hill workout per week. This ensures you gain the benefits of hill training without overexerting yourself.

4. Listen to Your Body

Hills are demanding. If you’re feeling particularly fatigued or sore after a hill session, ensure you allow adequate recovery before the next hard workout.

Here’s a sample marathon training schedule with Hill Workouts (4 weeks)

DayWeek 1Week 2Week 3Week 4
MondayRecovery run – 5 milesRecovery run – 5 milesRecovery run – 6 milesRecovery run – 6 miles
TuesdayHill Workout – 6 x 400m hill repeats with jog-down recoveryHill Circuit – Run up for 2 mins, 10 push-ups & 15 squats at the top, jog down x5Hill Workout – 10 x 150m hill sprints with walk-down recoveryHill Workout – 10 x 150m hill sprints with walk down recovery
WednesdayRecovery run – 6 miles + core exercisesRecovery run – 7 miles + core exercisesMedium-long run – 11 milesRecovery run – 7 miles + core exercises
ThursdayMedium-long run – 10 milesTempo run – 1-mile warm-up, 8 miles at tempo pace, 1-mile cool downIntervals – 10 x 800m with 400m easy jog in betweenTempo run – 1-mile warm-up, 9 miles at tempo pace, 1-mile cool down
FridayRest or cross-trainingRest or cross-trainingRest or cross-trainingRest or cross-training
SaturdayLong run – 16 milesLong run – 18 milesLong run – 20 milesLong run – 15 miles
SundayRest or easy recovery run – 4 milesRest or easy recovery run – 4 milesRest or easy recovery run – 5 milesRest or easy recovery run – 5 miles

How to Prevent Injuries During Hill Workouts

Hill workouts can be taxing on the muscles, tendons, and joints. However, with proper precautions, you can minimize the risk of injury.

Here are some prevention and recovery tips:

1. Warm-up Properly

Before starting your hill session, do some dynamic stretches like leg swings, high knees, and butt kicks to activate the muscles. Also, you can start with a 10-15 minute easy jog on flat terrain before hitting the hills.

2. Gradual Progression

Start with gentler slopes and shorter repetitions, and gradually increase the intensity. Your body needs time to adapt to the new stresses hill workouts introduce.

3. Proper Running Form

When running uphill, maintain a slight forward lean from the ankles, drive your knees upward, and push off strongly from your toes. Keep your head up and shoulders relaxed.

Conversely, during downhill, Lean slightly forward, and allow gravity to help but control your descent. Ensure you land on your midfoot to reduce braking and avoid overstriding.

4. Footwear

Wear shoes that provide good traction and support, especially if you’re running on uneven or rocky terrain.

5. Stay Hydrated and get Nutrition

Muscles and tendons work best when they’re well-hydrated. Ensure you drink water before, during (if it’s a long session), and after your workout. Moreso, eat a post-workout meal or snack that includes protein and carbohydrates to aid muscle recovery.

6. Listen to Your Body

If you feel any unusual pain or discomfort, it might be a sign that you’re pushing too hard or that there’s an injury starting. It’s essential to be attentive and take any pain seriously.

7. Cool Down

After a hill session, do a 10-15 minute easy jog on flat terrain, followed by static stretching, focusing on the calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

8. Ice Baths or Contrast Baths

An ice bath can help reduce muscle inflammation and soreness. Alternatively, contrast baths, where you alternate between cold and warm water, can aid in muscle recovery by promoting blood circulation.

9. Rest

Ensure you have easy days or rest days after intense hill workouts to allow your muscles and connective tissues time to repair and strengthen. Moreover, adequate sleep is crucial for recovery. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep, especially after intense training sessions.

Final Thoughts

Hill running is a challenging yet rewarding way to build marathon-specific strength. Following proper programming guidelines will help you stay healthy while reaping the benefits. In short, consistent hill workouts will serve you well on race day as you power over that final hill to the finish line! 

Moreover, if you’re looking to put your hill running training into practice in a real-time marathon event, consider signing up for the OC Marathon 2024. Don’t let a few hills intimidate you—with focused hill workouts integrated into your marathon training plan, you’ll be ready to conquer on race day!