Marathon Running For Hill Lovers, Even When You Live In Flatland

woman running on trail

Calling all flatlanders! In an ideal world, all of us hill-loving, marathon-running folks would have a road or trail to train on regularly that had just the right blend of elevation gain and loss to provide the right conditions for becoming race-ready.

Those long-distance runs would replicate the conditions you’ll have when you line up at the starting line. But, if you’re anything like me, you might be living in an area where that’s just not the case.

Or maybe you do have some hills nearby, but they’re too far away to visit except the occasional weekend and you need to adapt your weekday runs. Whatever the case, by making a few changes to your mindset and marathon training plan, you can get in plenty of hill-climbing practice in preparation for race day.

Train For A Hilly Marathon, Without Any Hills

By keeping the following training tips in mind, you’ll learn how to supplement and tweak your current marathon training program to include a few key elements to prepare for your hilly race. Using strength training, “pretend” hills, and some extra equipment, you can prepare your legs and your mind for your marathon running season, sans accessible hills.

If you’re new to running hills, make sure to read how to optimize your running form on the hills.

Get Creative At The Gym

While it’s certainly more scenic to train directly on a hilly route, you can also use the gym to build some hill-specific power.

strength training at the gym
  • Strength training movements such as squats, lunges, step-ups, and deadlifts can all help build the muscles that will power you up the hills. By adding weight to the movements, you’ll get even more benefit, similar to the stimulus you’d get by moving your own body weight up a hill, which is actually a type of resistance training itself.
  • If your gym has a sled or a tire, this can be a great way to replicate the effect of running uphill. By attaching a weight behind you and running against its pull, you get a similar effect to running uphill with gravity pulling you backward. As you lean forward against the resistance of the sled, you’ll also be recreating the angle that your body would be at against the hill. And as you dig in to run against the weight, you’re mimicking the shorter, more powerful strides needed to charge up a hill.
  • Use specific strength training movements to mimic downhill impact, such as drop squats and rebound box jumps. Both will put the focus on your quads absorbing the impact of landing and challenge your ankle and Achilles tendon flexibility and strength.

Build Power With Plyometrics

Including explosive jumping movements, called plyometrics, can also build the power necessary to stay strong on the hills. The muscles needed to launch your body up into a jump are the same ones that propel you up a hill, so working them is a great addition to any marathoner’s training plan.

The jumping nature of plyometric movements adds valuable stability and balance through the ankle, hips, and core. This is especially important when you’re training for a trail race where you’ll encounter uneven terrain.

Even road runners can benefit from the extra stability work, as you’ll be stepping on and off curbs at higher speeds, weaving around other racers, and following the turns of your training routes and racecourse.

Burpees are a classic plyometric movement and have the benefit of improving your endurance, hip strength, and ankle range of motion. They don’t require any equipment and can be done anywhere, making them a great choice for their versatility. Learn all about them in this video!

Prepare For Downhill Impact

Often overlooked, training for the impact and damage of downhill running can often mean the difference between crossing the finish line or dropping out at an aid station. Often referred to as “eccentric training,” downhill training tends to focus in on your quadriceps, as they take the brunt of the impact. Your knees and ankles often suffer as well, but there’s a lot of work you can do to avoid excessive damage to any one of those areas, such as strengthening your feet and ankles.

  • Use the decline setting on the treadmill. We’ll get into more detail on the treadmill soon, but it’s worth mentioning here that there’s value in using the machine’s decline settings to your advantage. While the decline may max out at only 3-4%, it’s still enough of a change to be useful.
  • Experiment by replacing an uphill workout with a downhill workout once every few weeks. Instead of concentrating your efforts on the uphill portion, save your focus and intensity for the downhill. If you have the luxury of a tall stairwell with an elevator in the building, ride the elevator to the top, then run the stairs down. Or, find a stadium and slowly walk the risers to the top, then focus on fast, light steps down to the bottom.
  • If you know you’ll be facing some technical downhills on your racecourse, use a drill such as curb-stepping to practice fast feet. You can practice this anywhere by simply jogging in place and quickly lifting your foot to lightly touch the curb, alternating feet as you go. It’s certainly not the same as being on a trail, but you’ll practice ankle stability, quick foot movements, and proprioception of your feet (a.k.a. where your feet are in relation to your surroundings).

Make Friends With The Treadmill

Whether you prefer to call it the treadmill or dreadmill, it is an extremely useful tool to train for hilly marathon running when you don’t have the right training ground nearby. From being able to set the exact incline you need for your specific racecourse to practicing maintaining a certain pace, the treadmill is a great training tool. You can even build in an aid station by stocking it with energy bars and sports drinks for your longer efforts!

woman running on treadmill

A lot of runners dislike running on the treadmill because they find it boring. Instead of using this as a reason to skip the ‘mill, use it as a mental training tool. As you build the mental endurance to spend an hour or more on the treadmill, you can practice a mantra, a breathing strategy, or even an inner monologue to deploy if you find yourself struggling on race day.

If you need ideas for a quick hill workout, check out Coach Holly’s 15-minute run with follow-along instructions.

Run Bridge Repeats

Necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, bridges, overpasses, and even stairwells can get the job done if that’s what’s available to you.

marathon running using a bridge incline
  • Though you probably don’t notice it when driving over a bridge, they actually rise up on either side to a peak in the middle of the structure. Generally, the rise isn’t very steep, but it can be enough to get your attention when running.
  • Depending on the length and incline of the bridge, you can use it for short, faster intervals or longer tempo efforts.
  • You can use the downhill portion for the downhill training mentioned above, or use it as your recovery interval as you walk or slowly jog back to the start.
  • If using a stairwell, try to find one that has at least three or four flights of stairs so you can get a decent amount of climbing in before turning around to descend again.
  • With either the bridge or stairwell, try running a few repeats up, then run a mile on flat ground before repeating the bridge or stair climbing. You’ll get great practice at running on tired legs, which is an invaluable skill for distance running.

Scout The Course, Virtually or In Person

Ideally, race day won’t be the first time you’re setting foot on your course. Even though it can be exciting to race a course sight unseen, in this case, a scouting session will serve you well. While that may seem like an extravagant use of time and effort, try turning it into a minivacation or a camping trip for the family. It’s also the perfect opportunity to run through the directions to the packet pick up area which will minimize stress on race morning.

  • This can be particularly useful for a trail marathon or ultramarathon. Since a trail race not only has hills of varying incline and duration, each trail has its own particular blend of fire roads, technical terrain, or buffed out trails. Running particular sections of the racecourse before race day can help dial in the type of training you should be doing when you get back home, whether that’s practicing a 2-mile long gradual incline or a series of steeper quarter-mile repeats.
  • Every race should have an elevation profile posted online. Use it to find out where in your marathon you’ll be encountering hills, and what the incline will look like. I wasn’t able to visit the racecourse of my first 50k race, so I used the elevation profile to tailor my training. It turned out that the last eight miles of the race were one long, gradual incline. Using a treadmill to run/walk for two hours at 4% incline was the best way I could prepare for that racecourse when I didn’t have any actual hills nearby to train on.
  • A road runner might want to drive the course to mentally record any big turns or busy intersections that will be a part of race day. In addition to running the hills, of course!

Appreciate The Change Of Routine

Even if your training runs are flatter than you’d prefer, your training can be as fun as you decide to make it. Instead of resenting the lack of appropriate training ground, set yourself some challenges throughout your weekly mileage.

  • Track improvement in your speedwork on the treadmill hills.
  • Add a repetition of stadium or stairwell climbing for an extra challenge each week.
  • Set aside time for calf and ankle mobility to counteract all the work your legs are doing.
  • Choose one or two new strength movements that you’ll continue to use even when you have regular access to hills again.
  • If this is your first marathon, just enjoy the process!

If you’re looking for a full marathon training program, we’ve got one for you! With weekly mileage, strength workouts, and a follow-along format, your training is queued up and ready to go! You can even find a couple of follow-along hill runs in there. Just download the mobile app to check it all out!