All the mental and physical tips you need to conquer the hills with confidence

By Antonio Macasieb | Photo by Lucas Favre/Unsplash

Now that you’ve taken some golden nuggets of advice on how to ace your ascents on the bike, it’s time to shape up for climbing on the run leg. Pay close attention: a well-executed climb can be an extraordinarily satisfying feeling. By the same token, few things are worse than bonking before the summit.

Preparation
Mental Games

Running up hills is as much a test of physical ability as it is one of mental toughness, and how well you can cope with a stressful ascent can affect your race. Scouting a race course with a team can do wonders for your preparation. Here are some things to do during your recon:

  • Try running the course right off the bike. Those hills will seem steeper out of transition.
  • Watch out for course landmarks. The duration of each ascent as well as any landmarks along the way can help you break down long tedious climbs into more manageable segments.
  • Take out those headphones and cut the chatter. On race day, you’re unlikely to be allowed to play music, and you might not be so lucky to be on pace with your teammates. See if you’re able to complete climbs without them.
Consider the Course

Course planning can get a little more complex on the run leg versus the bike leg. Remember that you’ll be coming off the bike, relatively lower on glycogen stores and possibly dehydrated.

  • Anticipate the run leg before you get to T2. Your body will have a much easier time digesting and rehydrating on the bike than on the run.
  • Leave nutrition, electrolytes, and water on T2. Anything can happen on the bike (like a dropped water bottle) and the distance between T2 and the first aid station is significant for most courses
  • Water is heavy; don’t lug it up the hill. Knowing where aid stations are with respect to tough climbs can help save you energy.
Technique

Let’s not make it any harder than it already is. Athletes can make big mistakes on a climb come race day, especially when they’re too tired to maintain good form and posture. During practice, stay mindful of the following:

  • Pacing. Trust your training or your heart rate (HR) monitor as a guide to how fast you can tackle a hill. As you start a climb, pay attention to your pacing as your heart rate spikes. Keep it under your anaerobic threshold (sub-85 percent max HR) for long climbs. Watch out for the rookie mistake of keeping up with other racers on the hills. Pull back and keep a steady pace and let them burn out, not you.
  • Eyes up. It can be tempting to look down on the ground and pretend the mountain isn’t between you and the finish line, but keeping your eyes up and your back straight will allow you to open up your airways and maximize your intake. An upright posture will also help you recruit larger muscles for the effort.
  • Keep it short and quick. Shortening your stride and picking up the cadence helps make hills more manageable. Longer strides will typically mean a larger ascent for each step taken, which can quickly bring you to exhaustion. Similar to riding on lower gears on a bike, running uphill with a shorter stride is more efficient and easier for maintaining your rhythm.
  • Power hiking. In more extreme cases (where the grade exceeds 10 percent or so or if you find yourself too exhausted to keep running), walking can be much more efficient than running. Keep a good rhythm while walking to maintain speed, with a slightly wider stride to compensate for the slower cadence.
  • Master the descent. As in the bike leg, the descent can help you make up for lost time. A little confidence, paired with keeping your eyes ahead and your body leaning a little forward can keep you fast down the hill. Good form on the descent can also help save your knees and quads; landing on your heels is a quick ticket to sustaining an injury.
Conditioning
Be One with the Hills

If you have a race coming up with plenty of climbing, it doesn’t hurt to embrace hills as soon as you can. Start adding runs on rolling terrain, which can help you build strength for your run.

You don’t always have to run at a strenuous grade; that could lead to injury especially as you’re starting out. Instead, add hill repeats at least once a week to build strength, all while controlling the amount of stress you put on your body. Try a few variations:

  • Build stamina with long but controlled easy to mild uphill climbs. You shouldn’t feel winded at the end of the climb.
  • Build strength by pushing yourself up a hill for short intervals.
  • Climbing stairs and stadiums are great alternatives where hills aren’t available.
  • Running backwards is a great way to build quad strength but is less important if you get plenty of time riding your bike, which also targets your quads.
Injury Watch

Nothing ruins uphill training more than a protracted injury. Majority of runners’ injuries caused by hill running stem from two factors:

  • Excessive stress from training. Not only are hill workouts inherently more stressful on your skeletal-muscular system, but those new to them will be recruiting muscle groups that don’t receive much attention on flatter terrain. Introduce hill workouts gradually to your training plan; if you’re feeling fine after two to three weeks, feel free to increase intensity.
  • Poor form on the descent. Runners tend to relax on the descent, and they let their form slack along as well. On steeper hills, fight the natural inclination to lean backwards to control your descent. Leaning back not only reduces your speed, it also adds significant stress to your joints. Instead, lean forward, keep your feet close to the ground, and raise your leg turnover before extending your stride.

Some might find hills on the race course daunting, but well-prepared athletes will see them as an opportunity to gain an advantage against other racers. Take these tips with you and build your confidence step-by-step on training days, during preparation, and on the course.