I live on top of a steep hill. How do I start running again?
June 14, 2020 1:04 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to start running again. It's been a couple of years since I was in any way serious about it; I'm back to the beginning in terms of cardio stamina (i.e. I could run a mile, but I really, really, really don't want to.) Last time I was running semi-seriously, I lived at sea level and on a flat surface. Now I live at 7000 feet up in the air, and at the top of a steep hill (9% grade in places). How do I do this? Am I doomed to the treadmill until I get my stamina back? Further complications under the cut:

Complication #1: altitude has apparently given me exercise-induced asthma. I have an inhaler and a medical practicioner's go-ahead to use it before exercise (and to exercise as much as I like), but yeesh. This is new.

Complication #2: there's no humidity here either, which is not helping with oxygen intake as far as I can tell.

Complication #3: there is literally no way for me to run to a flat place from where I live. Either I run down the hill (and then up the hill on the other side, etc.) or I run up trails, which I've never done, and which are ... still hills.

posted by byzantienne to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If it helps, trail running on rolling hills can be really fun and is my favorite kind of running? Sounds like hills are inevitable for you, might as well start on them since it’s more fun outside than in.

When I start running on real terrain again after some time off, I give myself mental permission to walk/power-hike up any hill I want to and run all the downs. Then the next time on the same route, I’ll try to jog something I chose to walk the time before. Just knowing that I don’t have to be a hero can be the difference between starting and staying on the couch.

The other thing that can help is choosing a starting place for optimal personal flow; I haaaate having to run a sustained up at the end of a run, so if I lived at the top of a giant hill I’d probably walk/bike/drive down to the bottom of it and start the run going up and ending down since that’s my preference.

If you have to start with run/walk intervals, there’s nothing wrong with that! It doesn’t mean you are not running! You don’t have to do them based on time or distance- sounds like based on upness or downness might be more appropriate.

Your knees will take a beating on hills so make sure you have good shoes, and if you’re running on trails and can swing it something with an aggressive tread designed for trails helps me a lot.
posted by charmedimsure at 1:39 PM on June 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

Start by walking. Add weight by carrying water bottles in a backpack with a hip belt. By the time you can power-walk a few gallons of water up the hill you'll probably be able to slowly jog up the same hill. (This is often called rucking but it's a fine exercise even if some of its devotees are a bit...not.)

Note that it can be a lot harder on your joints to descend than ascend. Consider pouring your water out at the top of the hill and descending unloaded, or jogging up and walking down.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 1:44 PM on June 14, 2020

I miss living somewhere I could do trail running, it's so nice! Felt better for my knees and was much prettier and more interesting than just running on a sidewalk. I would start by just exploring the trails at a slow jogging pace, or even a walk, and seeing how it feels.

As a person who has come into and out of good physical fitness over the years, I'm wondering if all this talk of being a "serious runner" again is stopping you from even getting started. You don't need to be at some ideal level of fitness before you can jog outside, because you don't have to go full-out with no pauses to walk when you jog outside. Why limit yourself to the boring treadmill instead of power-walking up and down those hills until you feel ready to run on them?
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:59 PM on June 14, 2020 [11 favorites]

FWIW, the majority of the trail runners I know (myself included) walk the uphills, run the flats and downs - it's a totally normal pattern for trail running.
posted by penguin pie at 3:34 PM on June 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

I am a trail runner - one who is not in the greatest shape (not running any ultras anytime soon) but one who has a lotta heart. Definitely think of trail running as "fast hiking."

For me, I really easily get obsessed with metrics like pace, elevation, heart rate, mileage, etc, but recently realized I was starting to burn out a bit. I changed my metrics to "did I get out there and try or not" and my goals became making time for nature, enjoying the views, taking pictures, and exercising my heart, lungs, and legs for a little while.

So my advice would be: definitely choose trails over roads if you can, it's so much more enjoyable. Get a running waist belt or backpack and carry water and some light easy to digest snacks (either actual running snacks like gels or gummies, or just like pretzels or whatever works for you - you might have to experiment a bit). Keep your effort as EASY as possible, which at times means jogging super slowly and at steep grades might mean hiking/walking. NO SHAME IN WALKING!!! Take a few minutes to savor reaching the top of the hill before you start back down. Strength training (like lifting weights or doing squats, lunges, core work, etc) a couple days a week will help save your knees and any other issues that might arise from muscle imbalances.

Try to think of it as: you have the rest of your life to improve, but if it's not fun, you won't want to keep doing it for the rest of your life. Those uphill slogs bring awesome rewards: strength and stamina, a feeling of accomplishment, the views from the top, and the feeling of freedom as you fly down the gentle downhill sections. Good luck and HAVE FUN!!!
posted by carlypennylane at 5:10 PM on June 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Why not drive to a better starting point?
posted by metahawk at 5:38 PM on June 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

Trails are super fun! And I think they are good for people with asthma or other respiratory issues, because a lot of trail running is about building your muscles as much or more than working your cardio-vascular system. I have to run more slowly and carefully on trails, but my ankles and calves get tired from the uneven surface. I don't get out of breath so much, and run much slower, but I feel like I still get a good workout.

I live in the middle of hills too (literally, my region is officially called "The Hills District".) I was just joking with my running group that somehow my last few runs seem to have been uphill both ways.

For a long time I couldn't do the big hills nearest to my house at all. So I just never ran in that direction. But then I got serious about it and started running down them and walk/jogging back up. Some days I'd just do it once, and other days I'd set out with my goal for the day being to train my uphill running capacity.

On a day when I'm doing it once, the biggest hill comes at the end of my run, so I don't beat myself up even if I walk the whole way up. But I do try to do jog/walk or jog/stretch intervals. I measure based on driveways or telephone poles, like, jog two telephone poles, walk one. Jog/stretch intervals where you stop and stretch until you are able to keep running are a good alternative if you want to be able to say you ran the whole hill.

On a day when I really want to train my hill running, I'll just do one short steep hill over and over. Either running up it and walking back down, or running up and jogging down depending on how fit I'm feeling. I try to do a set of 10, or do it solidly for about 20 minutes. Whatever comes first. I really notice an improvement in my ability to run hills as part of normal runs if I do these hill training sessions even just once a month for a few months.

Finally, I watched friends who are better runners than me when they do hills, and their technique is pretty different from mine. They tend to run much straighter, while I bend forwards, and they take very fast very small steps, while I tend to slow down much more. I even think sometimes that they run faster up the hills than they do on the flats.
posted by lollusc at 11:25 PM on June 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Just because nobody's mentioned it: there are a bunch of "Couch to 5k" programmes that do walk/run with gradually increasing amounts of running until you can run continuously. They're a good way to get back into running. Here's the NHS one.

Don't be afraid to just walk up hills at any time if it's easier. It's still good exercise. Ultramarathon runners and those on steep trails do a bunch of walking even if they're super-fit. I was listening to a podcast not long ago by an ultrarunner describing their first, very hilly, race. She was furious at first at the walkers passing her either on their walk, or after the peak when they were fresh and she was exhausted, but soon learned it was just a good strategy.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:48 AM on June 15, 2020

I live at the top of a hill, but it's only 20 meters. I also have EIB (exercise induced bronchial constriction). Just as a sanity thing, do you have a maintenance inhaler of some sort, or just using albuterol? Always using just an emergency inhaler is pretty rough, but if I didn't have insurance, I think my symbicort inhalers would be like $250 CDN every 2 months which is a price tag you'll notice.

Have no fear in a good power hike up the hill to your home. If you have any fear about looking "bad" in front of the neighbours, just say that it's your cool down ;)

For the rest of your complications, try to run by heart rate. For my longer races I aim to have a very consistent effort in the 125-135 heart rate range for the first 6 hours-ish, and from there based upon how the day's started base the rest of my race. I'll set my pace so I stay within that range, even if it means that I'm walking a hill that I feel fresh enough to run it at that moment.

An approach/heart rate like this would be great for the first month+ of getting started/back to running. A C25K that's too structured when one's running on hilly trail could get depressing if the hills are coming at all the wrong time. I'd strongly recommend a running watch either with optical heart rate, or that can pair with an ANT+ chest strap heart rate monitor - it's much easier to glance at your wrist to see how your heart/body is responding.

If the cost of the watch/HR is more than you're willing to do now, then try to go by effort. For the first month or three of getting back into running you should be able to easily speak sentences - try talking a few to yourself. If you're gasping out your words, you're going too fast. If you're ever short of breath, you're going way too fast - stop and walk for a bit.

Trail running is the best!
posted by nobeagle at 6:33 AM on June 15, 2020

Run down, walk up. Or better yet begin by jogging down and walking up. Beginners and re-starters are supposed to start slow and small and this could be a good way to do it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:50 AM on June 15, 2020

Another vote here for just starting, and stopping to walk when you need to.

Walk the uphills and run the downhills/flats, and then let your momentum carry you partway up the next roll...until you can run it all.

When you want to start “running” the uphills, start by going very very slow - painfully slow. Almost jogging in place. You’ll increase in speed over time but this will allow you to “run” up a hill without stopping or walking, at first.

Imagine you have a tow rope coming out of your belly button, attached to a winch at the summit and it is pulling you up, up, up.

Count to 100 steps and repeat to drone out the voice in your head saying you just. Can’t. Do. It.

If you haven’t run on hills before, do some reading and watch some videos about good downhill technique - it is important to save your knees (and ankles and hips) by keeping all your joints slightly bent so your muscles take the impact of the downhill step rather than your joints.

Also, if you don’t have a good pair of trail running shoes, I would recommend investing in a pair. They have a deeper, grippier tread than pavement running shoes, and often less cushion so you can feel the ground better and be more responsive to small roots, stones etc (to correct your balance on the fly). I like Altras - wide toe box and zero drop.

I love running rolling trails - I feel like Jason Bourne or some other secret agent on an important mission.
posted by amaire at 10:12 AM on June 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Get some hiking/walking poles. Seriously. Nordic walking is a thing; off season training for cross-country skiers, but is a great cardio workout for the rest of us.

We've been using walking poles off and on for several years, getting back into using them regularly now that we are home and have more time to exercise. Our cardio function has improved tremendously. We live in a hilly area, and the poles reduce stress on the joints and back going up and down hill, and generally gives a good total body workout.

Many videos online to help with technique, and beginner poles aren't super spendy.
posted by socrateaser at 12:43 PM on June 15, 2020

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