A Guide to Running Hills from the Great Smoky Mountains


Home is in the Great Smoky Mountains, a sub range of the Appalachian Mountains. The name “Smoky” comes from the natural fog that often hangs over the range and presents as large smoke plumes from a distance.

Around these parts, there is no more than a 2 or 3-mile stretch of relatively flat terrain….meaning, I have spent years finding the most economical means of running hills.


Our group hike last week was on the Smokemont Loop Trail; about a 7 mile loop and 1441 feet of total elevation gain.

We’ve been attacking these group hikes quite aggressively which prompted Paul to offer up an alternative to the traditional approach to this trail. We could take the slow, steady climb for roughly 3 miles and then tackle an 1100 ft climb for another 1-1/2 miles or,…..we could conquer the total elevation gain in the first 2 miles and enjoy a leisurely walk down. We opted for the conquering route.



As we started our trek up the mountain, my breathing was a bit labored. Relaxing into the climb, breathing came easier, rhythmic – just like running. It made me remember something I read awhile back.

After rushing into an activity, your aerobic system doesn’t know how long it’s going to be under attack. It jumps into high gear throwing all its effort into the job – like running up stairs. If the torture continues, the body adapts to the intensity and settles into maintaining for as long as possible (principles of Chi Running).

If we ran the stairs on a regular basis, I’m sure we’d all experience fewer visible signs. Running stairs can have more drawbacks than benefits for a runner, however, so I choose more sport appropriate training…….hills.

There are many suggestions on the best way to attack a hill, but first, let’s define the attack.

There is a difference between “running the hill” and “hill training.”

Hill training is an effort designed to make you faster – speedwork in disguise. This is a different conversation altogether. Running a hill could happen any day of the week.


Just like our hike up the mountain and the dash up the stairs, the body responds to this new intensity of effort and breathing becomes elevated. It takes a lot of energy to blast up a hill….. don’t do that. Energy is precious for distance runners – best to use it sparingly.

Unlike hill training where you may pump your arms through the effort, it’s more economical to lower the arms a bit when running a hill. Stand tall and erect, only slightly bent forward from the hip into the hill. Don’t look all the way to the top of the hill – it doesn’t matter how far up it goes. With practice your body will find its own economical form…….but, breathing is the secret potion.

When my Jeep is thrown into 4-wheel drive, it slugs a bit at first and then slowly gains momentum. Similarly, at the start of a climb pace may momentarily drop by 30 seconds or even a minute. Don’t panic. The body is adjusting to the effort.

Work at stabilizing and relaxing your breathing back to an easy 2-2 or even slower rhythmic pattern. By relaxing and settling into the climb, you will find it possible to gain momentum and run a steady, even pace….even faster pace.

Don’t tighten your shoulders or clench your fists. In running, as in life, this is a waste of energy.

A new idea is to transform running from a sport to a practice. If you see running only as a sport, you’re limiting yourself to getting only the physical benefits. It’s like the difference between stretching and yoga…between sitting in a waiting room and sitting in meditation…between training your body to run faster or farther and practicing to run in a mindful and masterful way.

Making an activity a practice is a process of self-mastery. You are no longer simply practicing that activity; you use it to learn about, understand, and master yourself as well as the activity.” (Excerpt From: Dreyer, Danny. “ChiRunning.” Simon and Schuster, 2009.)




Related posts: Slow down and run fast


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