Mastering Uphills and Downhills

One of the most common reasons runners don't perform as well as they'd like in a trail race or ultramarathon is that they lose their legs on demanding hill climbs and descents. The best trail runners are efficient at both climbing and descending. Here's how I help runners with their up and downhill running.


There are three basic types of uphill workouts I prescribe to runners while they prepare for a hilly trail race or ultramarathon: short hill repeats, long sustained hills and hills during a long run. These workouts are an easy way to build leg strength and core power safely. 

Because we don't all have access to optimal training grounds, we must work with what we've got. Obviously, the best options would include trails or roads with hills similar to those you would encounter in your upcoming race. Bridge overpasses, parking garages and treadmills will all do the trick in a pinch. Take the time to discover your best training venues. You might find that your local roads supply you with better hills than the trails.

Short Hill Repeats

Short hill repeats are the bread and butter of most training programs. They should be done throughout the base or building phase, and then revisited periodically as you progress towards race day. These repeats will help you with longer ascents.

Find a hill with a medium slope (six to 10 percent) that takes 45-90 seconds to ascend.  Run up at an effort equivalent to your mile race effort-this will ultimately equate to roughly 5K pace as you ascend the hill. Focus on good form with powerful push off and strong arm swing. Slowly jog down the hill to recover. Depending on your fitness level, do six to 15 repeats. If you find that you still lack significant uphill drive even after doing short hill repeats for a few months, then steep hill repeats might be the way to go. They aren't as long (only 15-30 seconds), but the hill is much steeper. These really develop power in the legs.

Long Sustained Hills

To run a sustained hill workout, find a trail or road that ascends for several miles and ideally gains between 500-1,000 feet per mile. Cover a total of four to 12 miles of uphill running miles, steadily increasing your intensity as you approach the end of the session.  Depending on the length of the climb, try to sustain half marathon to marathon pace effort. If you need to repeat the same hill several times, then do so. Recover as you jog back to the bottom. This is a challenging workout and will likely leave you heavily fatigued. Repeat it several times during a season and track your fitness progression.

 Hill Work During a Long Run

Choose a rolling route for your long run. Run at an easy, relaxed pace (one to two minutes slower than marathon pace) during this workout, but at each hill, regardless of the size, surge at 5K to half marathon pace to the top. Recover on the downhill and flats. Regulate your pace and effort depending on the length and slope of each climb.


We all love the downhills on race day or otherwise. We can move quickly with little effort and catch our breath while doing so. If you're good at them, you can use the downhills to your advantage and catch the runner in front of you. To the unprepared runner, however, too many long, steep descents can be demoralizing, essentially ending the race and making it difficult to walk afterwards. Running downhill is an activity that is nearly impossible to mimic. There are no machines at the gym, no stretches or medical tools that can properly prepare your legs for the rigors of a long trail descent. Unless you've programmed some regular downhill running sessions into your training schedule, come race day, you could find yourself relegated to a walk with burnt quads.

It is important to start gradually with short downhill repeats. Over zealously training your downhill muscles or racing aggressively without proper preparation will prohibit you from being able to train comfortably for a week or more and, possibly, cause injury. Use these workouts below to gain confidence in your downhill ability, improve your sense of balance and develop leg turnover.

Short Downhill Repeats 

Find a hill with a medium slope (6 percent to 10 percent) that takes a minute or two to descend. It is best to start on softer surfaces, such as smooth trail, grass or a dirt road. Stay away from rocky, technical trails for this workout. Descend at a comfortable, controlled pace, keeping your feet underneath you and allowing your glutes and quads to absorb the impact, not your knees. Keep your "brakes" off in order to keep the jarring to a minimum. Like the uphill repeats, do six to 15 downhill repeats, depending on your fitness level. Jog slowly or walk back to the top for recovery.

You want to start each downhill repeat feeling fairly rested. Your goal is to work on technique; this is not a cardiovascular workout. Building gradually to a cumulative total of 20 minutes of downhill running at this grade will prepare your body to withstand more advanced descents. Due to the potentially damaging aspects of this workout, allow plenty of recovery between sessions. Do these repeats every seven to 10 days.

Although there is no substitute for real descent repeats, eccentric single-leg squats and lunges may also prepare the muscles for downhill running. These are sometimes referred to as "negatives." The goal is to resist the weight in the exercise. For example, when performing a single-legged squat, focus on very slowly lowering into the squat position by taking five to seven seconds to do so.

Long Downhill Descents 

Once your legs are prepared for the shorter descents, it's time to put that fitness to work.  Long downhill descents can last anywhere from a quarter-mile to six miles. Short downhill repeats are no longer necessary due to the length of these longer descents. To avoid significant muscle soreness and to successfully build on your developing downhill leg strength, schedule a long downhill running session at least every 10 to 14 days during peak training. Muscle memory for this kind of work begins to disappear after two weeks.

To save time, you can and should incorporate these two descending hill workouts into your weekly long runs. It is, however, very important that you plan your training and subsequent recovery appropriately based on your fitness level.

About Ian & McMillan Running

Coach Ian Torrence is one of the most respected ultra/trail coaches in the world. He's run nearly 200 ultras (winning over 25% of them) and is a TransRockies Champion. He has the unique ability to help new ultra & trail runners as well as athletes winning National and World Championships.

McMillan Running helps runners get to the starting line healthy and to the finish line faster. The expert coaching staff works with new runners, experienced runners and even Olympians.

To train like the pros join the 5 Peaks Run Club with hundreds of training plans to choose from designed by McMIllan Running coaches specifically for 5 Peaks events and many other common race distances from 1 mile to 100 miles.  Regardless of the race distance or surface, we've got you covered in the 5 Peaks Run Club! 

To work one-on-one with a McMillan Running coach like Ian, please visit the 5 Peaks Coaching page and sign up for personal coaching.