Mental Strategies for Uphill Running

Focusing on being positive, calm and purposeful can help you reach the summit of small hills and big mountains

Photo: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket/Getty Images

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There’s nothing more divisive in trail running than hills. Some runners live for the semi-masochistic thrill of chasing death by lactic acid up a steep climb. Others lose their lunch at the mere sight of an ascent in their future. But both camps can agree on one thing: there’s nothing quite like the feeling of standing victorious at the top. 

Before that, though, there’s a world of pain to endure along the way. It’s a special kind of torture that takes runners through a gauntlet of both physical and mental strain. The more your quads throb, the more of a fight your brain puts up against the challenge. The decision to keep marching through the pain cave, resisting the urge to curl into a ball on the ground and cry, takes just as much strength as the actual act of pumping your legs. 

Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em (or love to hate ‘em), hills are here to stay. Acceptance is the first step. From there, take these tips with you on your next ascent to climb with confidence.

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Ignorance is Bliss

There’s no way to make your legs forget the fact that you’re in the middle of a grueling climb. But letting go of the remaining distance and time can help relieve the pressure. You’re in the hole for the foreseeable future, so you might as well get to know the walls around you rather than stare wistfully at the sky above. 

Kim Dobson, seven-time winner of both the Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado and the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire, thinks of each hilltop as “nature’s finish line.” “It’s very tangible what you’re trying to accomplish,” she explains. “You’ll eventually end up at the top. But to get there, you have to start at the bottom in body and mind.” 

Dobson doesn’t recommend going into a climb blind. She studies her route intently beforehand so she knows exactly what she’s getting into, from total distance and gain down to fluctuations in grade and terrain along the way. From there, though, Dobson breaks down each climb into chunks that feel manageable on their own. She only thinks about one chunk at a time without acknowledging the existence of any miles behind or ahead of her. 

“Segmenting” like this is one way to keep intimidation at bay. Maintaining a narrow external focus offers another. Think about it like putting on metaphorical blinders. Hold your attention on something small and concrete in your direct line of vision, ideally right beneath your feet. Rock textures, ant colonies, or even your shoes themselves make great focal points. The goal here is to block out the “big picture.” Worrying about how far you have to go will only welcome discouragement. Stay in the here and now; surviving each step is all that matters. 

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It’s not easy to keep a narrow focus for a long period of time. Yes, it’s important to look up once in a while to take in the view and celebrate how far you’ve come already. But each break in concentration is like a crack in the dam through which discouragement is all too quick to seep. Hone your focus skills outside of running so temptation doesn’t get the better of you when it counts. 

Set aside five or ten minutes each day to flex your focus muscles by studying an object with the intent to capture all its intricacies. Close your eyes or step away from the object after a period of observation, and try to recreate the details in your mind. Go back to the object and make note of what you missed. Repeat for three reps, just like the strength work you know you’re supposed to be doing. The closer you get to accuracy with each rep and from one day to the next, the better you’ll be able to pick up on the fine details in your environment while you’re running—and the less tempting you’ll find the urge to consider the “big picture.”

Be Your Own Cheerleader

How you talk to yourself matters. No one can hear the little voice inside your head, but that’s no excuse to be a bully. Don’t count yourself out before you have the chance to try. 

Instead, lean into motivational self-talk. Dobson creates different mantras for every segment of the race that speak to the level of effort she’s assigned to each one. In the beginning, when it’s important to go out slow and save gas in the tank for later, she opts for phrases like “easy, light, and smooth” to keep herself measured. Later in the race, Dobson shifts to more aggressive mantras like “push” and “go” that spur her on to the finish. The higher the effort, the simpler the phrase. 

Motivational self-talk not only helps control your escalating effort, it also offers a constant reminder that you’ve got someone special in your corner: yourself. There’s no better ally than your own brain. Since it’s always an option, no matter where you are or who you’re with, self-talk is the most reliable way to drown out any other noise that threatens your peace. 

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Keep Your Cool

Though it might seem counterintuitive, aim for cool and collected on the climb rather than amped and energized. Consider “Rate of Perceived Effort” here. The hill is only as hard as it feels. You’re already putting plenty of effort into tackling the hill; panic will only send your heart rate skyrocketing even further. Keep your overall RPE in check by balancing the physical demand with mental poise. 

Fellow mental performance consultant Neal Palles of Colorado Psychotherapy and Sport Performance suggests dabbling in dissociation, or intentionally disconnecting from the sensations at hand, as a way to detach from the discomfort. 

“Count your steps, match your breath to your stride, or get a rhythm going in your head,” Palles advises. “Dissociative techniques like these give the brain something simple to zone in on. They bring your mind back down to earth and back to the basics: left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out.” 

That’s all you really need to make it up any hill, so don’t over-complicate it. And remember: you are in control. Steve House, founder of Uphill Athlete urges runners to avoid the kind of “woe is me mindset” that leads to panic. 

“Notice thoughts like ‘this is happening to me’. No, you are happening to things; you’re making the race happen. Stay in your agency.”

Accepting responsibility and taking ownership over your decision to run will keep you in the driver’s seat. What you’re doing is hard, but you chose it for a reason. Keep choosing it with every step.

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Know Your Why

As Dobson gears up for a big climb, she thinks to herself: “What do I want to feel at the end of this, exhaustion or regret?” The answer to that question gives her purpose.

Dobson doesn’t believe she’s doing anything heroic in conquering a hill. “It’s just running,” she acknowledges. “I’m not saving lives or changing the world. But I do believe that it’s our job as humans on earth to identify our gifts and use those gifts the best that we can. This is my way of doing so.” 

It doesn’t matter what your purpose is, just that you have one. Effort without intent usually comes half-hearted at best. Without a strong source of motivation, you’re just plodding along for no good reason. There’s nothing to stop your brain or body from succumbing to the suffering. 

Purpose, on the other hand, gives runners something to fight for. Desire breeds determination. Whether it’s the look on your kid’s face when you finally crest the hill and catch their eager eye or the life-affirming feeling of crossing a finish line after breaking through an injury cycle, running in the name of something meaningful is the key to summoning the energy you need to see it through. Know your “why,” and know it well. That’s the real hilltop worth standing on.

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