How Runners Can Overcome Hills, Wind and Heat

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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How Runners Can Overcome Hills, Wind and Heat

When you’re new to running, it’s especially easy to hit highs and lows during your training. New experiences such as discovering a beautiful route, seeing the sunrise or discovering that runner’s high can be exhilarating.

At the same time, obstacles that are commonplace for experienced runners may feel more significant and insurmountable for newer runners. The more time you spend on your feet, the more you’ll face common challenges including hills, wind and heat. While they will all ultimately make you stronger, it can be tough to remember that in the moment.

Learning how to tackle challenges from both a mental and physical perspective helps you conquer them, but it takes practice.

Whether you tackle hills daily or in races, they pose both a mental and physical challenge. Olympic marathoner Frank Shorter coined the phrase “hills are speedwork in disguise.” They build the same sort of physical and mental toughness and endurance as faster interval sessions with less impact, so try to embrace rather than avoid them.

Physical Approach: The key to tackling hills successfully is to run by effort rather than pace. It’s normal for your pace to slow, especially on a long or steep hill. Try to maintain an even effort level up and down hills, and your pace will even itself out over the course of a run or race.

As you run up a hill, keep your eyes focused ahead of you rather than staring down at your feet. This keeps you from getting rounded and hunched. Shorten your stride, and think about using a strong push-off to propel you forward. If a hill is too challenging to run, there’s no shame in briskly walking or hiking, especially if it allows you to recover and continue running more quickly.

Mental Approach: When you are tackling a hill, the simplest thing to keep in mind is for every up there is a down. Long, steep hills can be especially tough, so mentally break them into segments.

Just get yourself to the next pole or mailbox or any landmark you choose. Stay focused on the moment and try to embrace the challenge (or ease) of the mile you’re in.

While you may be able to avoid hills on your hometown running routes, it’s tough to escape the wind. Runners may appreciate a breeze on a warm summer day, but rarely enjoy a strong wind combined with cold or rain. A headwind in a race can be particularly taxing, especially on a route like the Boston Marathon that follows a nearly straight line and leaves you with no reprieve.

Physical Approach: Training runs make it easier to work with the wind since you can plan your route. With races you may not be quite so lucky. If you run an out-and-back route, start by running into the wind to give yourself an easier (and likely faster) second half when you return with it at your back.

Much like hills, run into the wind by effort rather than pace. Learning to run by feel is an important skill, and hilly or windy runs are an excellent opportunity to practice this. When the wind is relentless, trails or a similarly protected area is a great option since you’ll be sheltered from the gusts.

Mental Approach: A strong headwind can wear you down mentally and physically. Pacing yourself appropriately early in your run keeps your mind from getting overwhelmed by the conditions as the miles progress.

When you are racing, remember everyone is facing the same conditions. Think about relentless forward progress, and break your race or run into smaller, more manageable chunks. It also helps to tuck behind a bigger runner to help block the wind.

Running in the heat can have more dangerous consequences compared to the first two obstacles if you don’t acclimate yourself appropriately. While it may be best to stay out of the heat for harder workouts or long runs, it can also be useful to train your body (and mind) to adapt to the conditions.

Physical Approach: Avoid running during the hottest part of the day if possible, but definitely include some heat training if you have an upcoming race that is likely to be hot. Running in the pre-dawn and evening hours helps you avoid the midday heat, though mornings may be more humid.

Shaded routes or trails can make the hotter temperatures more bearable. Carry water or pick a route with fountains. A loop close to home can make it easier to get water or rest if you get overheated. Wear light-colored clothing, and use ice or a cold, wet cloth around your neck to help lower your core temperature.

Mental Approach: Running in the heat is about both avoidance and acceptance. If you run when it’s hot and humid you’ll need to adjust your pace — and, even more important, adjust your expectations. Just like when you’re facing an ongoing headwind, monitor your effort right from the start. If you wait until you’re already hot and fatigued, it’s much harder to recover.

Hills, wind and heat each provide their own unique set of challenges, but each one is also an opportunity to grow stronger and more resilient when tackled appropriately.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.

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