Hill Training Hacks for People Who Live in Flat Places

imageRunning hills is important part of any good training plan, right?  It’s good for our bodies. It puts muscles where we never knew muscles existed. It makes us faster, stronger, and tougher runners.  Sounds great to me! I’m on board!

Um, there’s just one thing. So for most of us, it’s just as simple as getting out there, finding the hills, and doin’ the damn thang. But when you leave in one of the flattest places in the universe, it’s not quite so simple. Yet, it hasn’t stopped me from running hills.

You can run hills anywhere … with a little improvising.

Let me tell you a little bit about a magical (and flat) pace I like to call Moorhead, Minnesota. Ok, everyone calls it that because that’s its name. Anyway, this little suburb of Fargo has got to be one of the flattest places on earth.  When I say we have no hills, I can ALMOST use the word “literally” here and mean it literally.  Our hills can be counted on one hand, and none of them occur naturally.  There are a couple of underpasses and a couple of bridges that MIGHT work for hill training.

This is generally pretty awesome, because for the bulk of my running career I’ve been able to avoid the grueling work of hill repeats with the simple but effective excuse, it’s not my fault.  But the past few times I’ve tried running races outside the Fargo area have been pretty disastrous.  By hill number 2 of any race, I’m toast.

I finally surrendered and admitted that I needed hills in my life and convinced my training buddy she did too. As soon as our local track booted us for marching band practice in September, we decided it was the perfect time to explore the bizarre practice of running up and down a parking garage ramp.

Parking Garages!

Hello from the top of Island Park parking ramp!

You read that correctly. If done with safety in mind, ramp running can be a great way to incorporate some hills into your workouts. Our ramp of choice is about a quarter mile long and right across the street from our gym. Four hundred meters is just enough to get the heart rate pumping and activating all of those unused hill running muscles.

A typical hill training workout for us is a 1 mile warm up, followed by ramp running/ flat running intervals.  We typically run up and down the ramp 3-4 times and in between do a flat out and back through the park.  It’s been a really great addition to my weekly workouts and I noticed a huge improvement in my endurance during a particularly hilly race last weekend.

The big limitation to ramp running is the safety factor.  We do our ramp running at 5:30am in a well-lit, safe, parking ramp.  There is always a patrol car on the ramp and hardly any cars use it at that time of day.  Fargo has crime, but perhaps not as much as a larger metropolitan area.  I always run with a partner and wear bright clothing.  I imagine that it would be pretty scary to run in a busy parking ramp, so for me, time of day is a big factor.


There are other options for adding some elevation to your runs if you aren’t lucky enough to have a parking garage to use. Playing with incline on a treadmill can jazz up a normally boring treadmill routine and give you some fake hills to work with.  You can play around with long, slow climbs or short, fast hills.  Treadmill is rarely my preferred way to run, so anything to break up the monotony is always welcome!  Here are a couple of workouts you could try!

1. Pyramid workout

Start with your pace relatively easy and try to maintain the same pace as the incline increases, resulting in increased effort up the hills.

  1. 1 mile at 2-percent incline
  2. .75 mile at 3-percent incline
  3. .5 mile at 4-percent incline
  4. .25 mile at 5-percent incline
  5. .5 mile at 4-percent incline
  6. .75 mile at 3-percent incline
  7. 1 mile at 2-percent incline

2.  Hill Intervals

Shorter, steeper hills at a faster pace (about 5K effort – always go by effort for hill work!)

  1. Warm up for 10 – 20 minutes
  2. Run 5 to 10 reps x 90 seconds at 4 % incline. Start with 5 reps and work up to 10 as you progress. Recover for 2 minutes at an easy pace between reps
  3. Cool down for 10 – 20 minutes

Adding hills to my training has been a fun, new challenge.  Be careful and be sure to ease in if you’re new to hill training.  Incorporating a hill workout once a week is more than enough to conquer just about any hill you might face in your next race.

Have you had to improvise to get in some hills? How do you do it?

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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  1. My son lived in Minneapolis for five years and trained for Sierra Mountain bike rides riding “hill” repeats on frontage roads next to onramps, including a few roads with slight “dips”. On flat fast runs in Davis California, the only “hill” is a highway overpass and it feels so much higher than it is. Guess I’ve been fortunate to live in hilly places, e.g., SF, Austin, Boulder, northern California–sometimes too many hills! Great ideas!

  2. I have always heard about people using parking garages, but living in Upstate NY, never really needed to FIND hills….they just find you. But one alternative or…supplement for hills is strength training. This is something I think has worked really well for me, where I run hills but also do a good amount of leg work. Squats, lunges, plyometrics, are all great ways to build the leg strength for hills. It can’t replace hills but it can certainly help!

  3. Moving from Chicago (where I ran mostly along the lakeshore) to New York (where many races are in deceptively hilly Central Park) killed me for the first few months. The parking garage idea, though, is pretty genius!

  4. Pumpkin, you are hilarious. Love your posts! When we lived in Mississippi, the city was so small that we didn’t even have a parking garage. I think the stair-stepper machine is pretty good for uphill training, but my problem is the downhill. I ran the Birmingham marathon, which was hilly, and trained only in MIssissippi on flat. Would you believe it, my legs pooped out on the downhills. My quads were toast! Never had a problem on the uphills. I guess I could have “tucked and rolled” to get down the hills!!