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"Which Data Points Matter?" Hills

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

Hilly Race Parameters

Today’s edition of “which data points matter?” regards hills.  How do you know if a course is ‘hilly’ or not?

Let’s break it down.

Hilly Marathon Course

The ‘fast because flat” wisdom only holds for races that are an hour or shorter to complete.   Longer distances, you will want some minor variation.  Why?  The rate of fatigue rises exponentially after the first hour of a single-sport event, meaning you will get more tired more quickly after the first hour. 

If you use smart hill strategy, hills are very much an advantage and keep your legs ‘fresh’.   In a sense, hills hit the reset button on that rate of fatigue.  When you go uphill, your form changes and a different muscle chain will dominate your movement.  When you go downhill, it changes again (ever heard me tell you to use the downhills for recovery?  Yay gravity!).  Those changes, no matter how brief, provide some rest for the large dominant muscle groups, which slows the rate of cumulative fatigue.  

So, now we know that we want some elevation variation in our courses.  However, we all know there is such thing as too much of a good thing.   So how do you know when a course has too many hills, warrants hill-specific preparation or is so hilly we need to set aside time goals?

The Rules

Deep breath:  going back to high school algebra.  Specifically, slope.

Expressed as a percentage, slope is used in lay terms to describe a hill’s steepness.  It is calculated as “rise over run”, then you move the decimal point to the right two spaces to get a %.  To understand what that number means, think about the incline button on a treadmill.  Most treadmills will go up to 15%, some will offer negative slope but rarely more than -3%.  Slopes of more than 3% are very rare in road running events. has an excellent system of categorization:

Bear in mind though, this system is intended to cover cycling, road, and trail events.  Also note that Big Sur only gets a category 5.  This category system catches notoriously hilly races like Big Sur but fails to catch others like Mount Desert Island.  My rules should help fill those gaps. 

Rule #1, aka “the rule of net gain”: any race that promotes its net elevation is trying to hide something.

Rule #2, aka “the rule of total gain”: a course can be considered ‘hilly’ if it has a total (NOT NET! NET IS MEANINGLESS!) elevation gain (or loss) of 1000 ft or more.

Rule #3, aka “the rule of 120”: a course can be considered hilly if it has three (or more) rises (or descents) of 150 feet (or more).

Rule #4, aka “the 4% rule”: A course is ‘hilly’ if it has four (or more) up (or down)hills of 4% grade or more).

This rule comes last since it requires math. Examples of 4% slope: 

· 100 foot unbroken rise over 2500 ft distance (just under half a mile) · 200 foot unbroken rise over 5000 ft distance (just under a mile)

Analysis: Use the Rules

Let’s look at some charts. 

Total elevation gain: 822ft.  That’s a big number.  The course also bills itself on the registration page as a ‘net zero elevation gain’.  That’s a red flag.  Let’s look at the chart.

This course has two eye-catching rises and one notable descent at first glance.  When we take a deeper dive and do some math, we see that the largest single rise is only 100 ft. 

Verdict: We need to be prepared for miles 8-10, but this race isn’t hilly enough to warrant excessive hill-specific strength training. Other variables aside, this course doesn't categorically rule out PR.

Total elevation gain is 581.  The largest single climb is 120ft and there is a single descent of 120ft to match. 

Verdict: I would recommend adding some 120ft ascents and descents into your long runs just to get you used to it, and encourage lots of glute work to make sure you can maintain good form and pacing, but on the whole this course doesn’t necessitate hard-core hill-specific prep; I think the elevation changes could be rather advantageous to a smart runner. This course doesn't categorically rule out PRs.

Now, let’s look at Big Sur, generally considered to be one of the hilliest and toughest road courses in the United States:

Average grade on this route is 3.5%  Total elevation gain is 1660. 

Verdict: Yup, that’s hilly!  You will need to build in extra time to your training cycle for additional strength and hill work; minimum 4 weeks.  8 is optimal.  PRs are highly unlikely.

Conversely, look at Tucson, which loses 1800 ft over the course of the race and is on par with most Revel courses.

Verdict: These downhills are brutal!  Your quads will be toast without additional strength work.  Would recommend extra time to prep just like for Big Sur.  PR is possible since it's a downhill course but not guaranteed.

Finally, Mount Desert Island Marathon.  This course is considered one of the prettiest in the country and is often described as ‘rolling hills’.  I would caution any runners not familiar with the area to prep themselves for ‘relentless climbs’.  

This course also meets Rule #2 since its total elevation gain is 1400 ft.  That’s only a little less than Big Sur.

Coach MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLCwhere she coaches all kinds of runners for $29 per month and gives marathon plans away for free. Click here to download her most popular training plan, Tenacious AF!

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