If you asked me when I first started running how I felt about hills I would have told you the only hills that I liked were downhills. My first routes that I developed when I gained the fitness level necessary to cover 3 or 4 miles at a time were all as flat as I could find them.
If I did have to deal with some hills on my runs, I made sure the “ups” came early and the “downs” came late. I felt that the simple act of running was challenging enough, why in the world would I make it any harder on myself than I absolutely needed to.
At first I didn’t like hill running because, well, it was hard. But running hills provides a lot of great benefits to runners and if I wanted to get stronger, faster and “tougher” I knew I needed to head for the hills.
In 2006 as I trained for my very first marathon I started to feel a lot different about hills and the role they played in my training. Running hills as well as running in the wind (which we will talk about this winter when the wind picks back up in Austin) quickly became a staple of my training program.
I realized that my running would benefit in five key areas from hill training:
Strength: Hill running is just a form of resistance training. It builds muscles in your calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and especially your glutes. Running on flat terrain strengthens those muscles as well, but not to the degree that uphill and downhill running will. Another byproduct is the strengthening of your hip flexors and your Achilles tendons.
Speed: Hill training helps you build speed and get faster. The muscles that you use to run up hills are the same ones that are used for sprinting. The added strength in those muscles will translate to faster times on flat terrain.
Risk of Injury: There is no doubt that the strengthening of leg muscles that occurs while hill training helps reduce the risk of suffering from running-related injuries such as shin splints, IT Band issues and calf strains.
Technique: I learned how to run hills by simply running more hills. How to lean, how to use my arms, how to come up more on my toes to drive up a hill. How to run through the top of the incline and not relax as I crested the top. How to shorten my stride and keep my knees lower on a steep incline. Even how to “brake” on a steep downhill without causing extra pressure on my knees and quadricep muscles. Hill training “forced me” to improve my overall running economy simply through repetition.
Confidence: This for me was potentially the greatest gain. The more I ran hills during my training, the more I felt I could “rock” them during a race. While others slowed down and lost time to the hill, I would be holding steady and “gaining time” against other runners. The added confidence that I could be “strong on the hills” helped remove a lot of pre-race and “in-race” anxiety of the hilly sections of a course.
Did Heartbreak Hill take a bite out of me at Boston this year? Absolutely. I would be lying if I said otherwise – but never once did I fret about it before the race or on the course. Having run the gauntlet of hills from Newton to Chestnut Hill in 2010 – I will be much better prepared for that stretch of the Boston Marathon course when I return.
Last Wednesday night as runners were mingling before the Summer Sunstroke Stampede race in Brushy Creek park I heard many of them talking about “the hill” from the 2.2 mile mark to 2.8 on the way to the finish. Being my home-course so to speak, where I train basically every day during the week when I am not traveling – I was actually looking forward to the .60 mile stretch that climbs about 5 stories in height.
I knew that part of the race was where I could “make my move” and pass some of the runners ahead of me on the course. My vision for the race held true to form as I passed four younger runners on the way up to the top of the dam and did not see them again until I was long through the finishing chute. If that race was held on flat terrain – I don’t think I would have been able to pass them. That really is the point when it comes to hill running. You have to practice it to get good at it, it is an acquired skill. It is also a weapon on race day if you put in the training.
So how do you get started? For me there have been two key areas where I have worked hard on improving:
Approach (Running Form) and Repetition (Hill Training).
My approach or “running form” was one that I really needed to work on over time. Running economy is something that gets harder and harder to “keep together” as you tire or put your body under stress. Hill running is hard work, so your form is something that you need to concentrate on to stay smooth, tall and in control.
Some keys to remember:
1. Effort: Do not change your effort and “attack the hill”. I focus on trying to maintain my effort level on an uphill and let the incline dictate my speed. If I can keep my leg turnover or “cadence” similar – I know that the incline will automatically shorten my stride. It is this shortening of my stride that will “slow me down” – but I try to maintain the same rhythm and drive in my legs. It allows you to not overwork yourself, waste energy and end up out of breath at the top of the hill.
2. Form: Concentrate on your form. I try to make sure my arms are at a 90 degree angle and are moving back and forth rotating from my shoulder. I focus on that movement and make sure I have no wasted energy of my arms moving side to side – even slightly.
3. Posture: I try to maintain my posture keeping my back straight and “tall” – something challenging for a 5′ 8″ runner. It is important to lean in slightly at the hips, but make sure that you are not running hunched over.
4. Arm swing: Your arms drive your legs, not vice-versa. If you can focus on keeping your arms lower and your swing shorter your legs will likewise stay lower to the ground and help you conserve energy. When you reach the apex of the hill you will be able to resume your normal stride.
5. Crest with a purpose: One of the things I work on every time I take on an uphill slope is to run through the top of the hill five full strides before I start to relax. This helps me regain my normal pace on the flat and I start picking up the lost seconds that I slowed while covering the incline. Many runners begin to ease up off the gas as they approach the top of the hill and they drop from an 8:00 minute/mile runner to a 8:30 minute/mile runner. It can take them anywhere from a tenth to a quarter of a mile before they fall back into that 8:00 minute/mile pace.
The sooner you can fall back to your goal pace or your “flat” pace – the less time you will have given away cresting the hill. That may not seem like a lot, but slowing :30 per mile for .25 miles will add :07 -:08 seconds onto your mile split.
From a Repetition standpoint – and by that I mean incorporating hills into your training regimen - there is not too many drills better than hill repeats.
Hill repeats are a great way to improve in all the areas we talked about. Strength, Speed, Mental Strength and Self Confidence. There are as many types of hills as there are runners out there. They come in all lengths and inclines – but the concept of running hill repeats is the same the world over. You run up the hill fast (5K effort/pace) and recover by jogging (or walking) down.
1. Experience: Hill repeats are not necessarily an “advanced” running workout – but you should have 2 months or more of a mileage base built up before incorporating hill repeats into your training plan.
2. Length: I look for a hill that is .25 to .40 miles in length. You can start with a hill that is as short as 100 or 200 meters long and move up in distance from there.
3. Incline: You want the incline of the hill to be tough enough to test you, but not too steep that you cannot maintain your running form.
4. Warm Up/Cool Down: It is recommended that you do 10-15 minutes of slow running/jogging before you start at the bottom of the hill. You will also want a similar cool down period at the same intensity. I typically run 2 to 2.5 miles to the site where I will run my hill repeats and the same distance back. This gives me a distance of 4-5 miles of flat running in addition to my hill workout for the day.
5. Approach: Starting at the base of the hill you run up at your 5K effort pace. You want to feel as though you are pushing yourself hard up the hill, while keeping a consistent effort. Do not let your form fall apart – if you feel that is starting to happen near the top of the hill, you need to slow your pace just a bit and adjust on the next repeat.
6. Form: You want to keep your arms at a 90 degree angle, concentrating on swinging them lower and shorter. This will result in a low, quick stride. Keep your back straight and erect, if you lean forward, do so from the waist, not your shoulders.
7. Crest: When you reach the top of the hill you will feel like you are almost out of breath. That is what you are shooting for. Your legs should feel heavy. Turn around at the top of the hill and recover by jogging slowly back down or by walking. Typically I jog down the hill at a pace 2:00 min/mile slower than I ran up.
8. Repetitions: The number of repeats depends on your experience and your fitness level. For beginning runners a good start would be 2-3 hill repeats adding one additional repeat each week for the next 3-4 weeks. Advanced runners may want to start with 6 repeats adding one repeat per week up to 10 repetitions. For me, 6-8 repeats are enough as the hill I train on is approximately .40 miles long.
9. Frequency: Hill repeats are really a workout that is suited for no more than once a week. This counts as a “hard day” for sure – so if you are following the golden rule of one “hard day” followed by one “easy day” – your schedule may look like this:
Monday Off/Cross Training, Tuesday Speed, Wednesday Recovery Run, Thursday Hill Repeats, Friday Rest, Saturday Easy, Sunday Long Run.
This will give you the proper balance and variety in your training calendar but allow your body recovery time to grow stronger. You would not want to do Speed Work and Hill Training on back to back days, nor would you want to do Speed Work or Hill Training immediately before or after your Long Run. It is important to rest your body after tough workouts so your muscles can adapt and grow stronger.
One of my favorite quotes about hill-running comes from Marty Stern. “Uncle Marty” who was a hall of fame athlete at West Chester University near where I grew up outside of Philadelphia, then a Women’s Track coach at Villanova University as well as at the 1988 Seoul Korea Olympic Games once said:
“If the hill has its own name, then it’s probably a pretty tough hill.”
Right you are Uncle Marty - Heartbreak Hill certainly meets your criteria.
Happy Trails everyone!