How to Train for a Hilly Race Without Hills

A group of runners run up a hill.

One of the best parts of running, for me, is traveling to different places to race. I love experiencing the energy of a new city, the fact that the weather will likely be cooler than back home, and the excitement of conquering a new course.

Some of my favorite races have included the Boston Marathon, the Flying Pig Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon. What do those three races have in common? Hills!

Living in South Florida makes it incredibly difficult to train on hills. The only elevation changes down here are overpasses, former-landfills-turned-parks and the occasional speed bump in a Publix parking lot.

I’ve had to adapt my training to perform well on hilly race courses. Here are five ways I’ve trained for hilly races without hills:

1. StairMaster workouts

The StairMaster is like my frenemy. I know that StairMaster workouts are helpful for my cardiovascular fitness and leg strength but, man, are they humbling! Climbing up a literal endless amount of stairs can be mentally daunting, but it’s a great way to prepare for the act of climbing up a seemingly endless hill during a race (Heartbreak Hill, anyone?).

“Running any type of elevation will force your body into different movement patterns than it would experience on a flat surface,” says Tim Lyman, an experienced running coach who leads the Fleet Feet Pittsburgh training programs. “Running uphill specifically taxes the quadriceps more than running on a flat surface, so a StairMaster can be a great tool to load this major muscle group.”

In order to make the workout go by faster and challenge myself a bit, I like to do intervals of around two to five minutes at a higher level, which means the belt is moving faster, and then recover for a few minutes on a lower level. Watching The Eras Tour on Disney+ helped make these workouts go by faster, as well.

2. Treadmill incline/decline runs

A woman runs on the treadmill.

The treadmill, or more commonly known as “the dreadmill,” is a useful tool to mimic race conditions that you aren’t able to practice outside. For example, when I trained for the 2023 Boston Marathon, I practiced long stretches of downhill running to prepare for the first half of the course followed by some half-mile intervals at a steady uphill grade to mimic the infamous Newton Hills. I adjusted my pace accordingly to get my body used to running by effort and not pace. Plus, switching back and forth between different elevations helped the time go by much faster on the treadmill (the new season of Dateline helped, too).

“Your running mechanics will shift in response to changes in elevation, both uphill and downhill, while placing different amounts of stress on different parts of your body,” says Lyman. “Adding variety to your treadmill workouts can simulate these changes in a safe, controlled environment.”

Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to belong to a gym with two treadmills that have decline function as well as incline. If your treadmill doesn’t have the decline feature, switching back and forth between incline and flat is still a great way to prepare your muscles for the elevation changes you’ll encounter during your race.

3. Strength Work

Strength training for runners is an important part of any training plan, whether you’re running on a hilly course or not. Strength work allows your body to handle the impact of running while addressing potential muscle imbalances and improving power, stamina and speed.

As mentioned above, running up and down hills works different muscles than running on a flat surface. Adding in strength training can prepare your body for these demands. Before every workout in my Boston Marathon training plan, my coach had me perform three sets of ten single-leg squats on each leg. I was instructed to go slowly during the downward motion to increase the time my quadriceps spent under tension. The result? My quads were pretty tired by the time I started my workout, which was exactly how they felt by the time I reached the hilliest part of the marathon course.

A woman performs a deadlift with 15 pound dumbells.

4. Spin Bike Workouts

Riding on the stationary bike may not sound like a runner’s idea of fun, but let me tell you this: after an 80-minute hilly ride on the Expresso bike at the YMCA my quads were killing me. It’s basically a mix of leg day and a grueling cardiovascular workout. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a spin bike, try focusing on the watts versus RPM (revolutions per minute) or MPH (miles per hour). Watts are a more consistent indicator of how hard you’re working, versus RPM or MPH which will vary significantly based on the terrain and elevation changes.

“Spin bike workouts are a great way to strengthen your legs, and varying the movement slightly by adding resistance and standing up in the saddle will be even more effective,” Lyman says. “As an added bonus, if you’re clipped in you get the benefits of both pulling and pushing during each stroke of the pedal.”

5. Drive to the highest point of elevation you can find (if you have the time)

While South Florida doesn’t have any hills, we do have a few former-landfill-turned-parks. The closest one to me is about 30 minutes away and lovingly referred to as “Trash Mountain.” It offers several paved pathways, one of them including a steep, quarter-mile incline with a half-mile loop at the top.

My go-to workout here would be five miles at goal marathon pace, aiming to run up the steepest hill once every mile. There was another, less-steep hill I’d include, too, and this was the closest thing to a “rolling hills” route I could find. I was able to drive up to Trash Mountain and do this workout once a week, allowing me to practice slowing down on the inclines, speeding up on the declines, and overall maintaining an even effort while running my goal race pace.

Not everyone has access to a Trash Mountain, a spin bike or a stairmaster. However, if you can add in just one of these workouts to your weekly schedule, you’ll be a lot more prepared for a hilly race course.

“The more you can replicate the type of elevation you might experience during your race or event, the better off you will be,” Lyman says. “It might take some extra time and not happen very frequently, but even a small dose is better than none!”

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