Posts Tagged ‘Hill Repeats for Marathon Training’

On Friday morning at 4:48 a.m. on a darkened street in Avery Ranch I pushed away from the driveway where I was stretching my hamstrings and calves to start my workout.  The temperature had dropped to an even 50 degrees overnight.  The flag on our house lay limp from the post.  Not a single breath of air to move it.  In a word the running weather was …. perfect.

I had a late night on Wednesday night this week due to some travel and I decided that instead of running my Thursday Hill Repeat Workout and resting on Friday, I would simply flip-flop my workout days, rest on Thursday and then run on Friday.  Usually a decision like that – putting something off into the future for personal/selfish reasons – comes back to bite you in the form of a thunderstorm, high temperatures, ungodly humidity, a flood, locusts …. you get the picture.  That decision for a runner never seems to pay dividends.

This time however, it paid of handsomely.  Shorts, Singlet, light gloves and my Boston Marathon Race shoes carried me up the long hill to the top of the neighborhood for my 3-mile warm-up.  The loop would deposit me at the bottom of the hill where we run our repeats on Thursdays.  3/10 of a mile long, 65 feet of climbing from the base to the top where we turn around under the street light and make a slow recovery jog back to the bottom to do it all over again.

Hill Repeats have become a staple in our training since the Austin Marathon in February of 2011.  It was famously described by Frank Shorter as “speedwork in disguise” as if the workout is run properly, you are essentially running at 5K effort up a steep incline for anywhere between 400 and 600 meters.  To run at that intensity uphill is akin to running at far below your 5K race pace approaching your lactate threshold.

The runner gets the same gains as doing repeats on a track – but at a far reduced injury risk as the stride is shortened by the incline and you are not navigating any turns at a high-speed.

It also taxes your climbing muscles which creates not only a faster athlete on hills, but a strong fast runner on the flats as well.

That is why although there is hardly a hill that is not manmade on the Houston Marathon Course (think overpasses only), we are preparing for the race as if it were as hilly as Boston, NYC or Pittsburgh.

When I started doing this workout a couple of years ago I would be able to crest the hill in 1 minute and 47 seconds.  Approximately 6:25 pace per mile.

As I stuck with the workout my times per repeat improved and I was suddenly running them between 1:42 and 1:44 all the way up to 10 repeats.  Approximately 6:10-6:15 pace per mile.

A funny thing happened to me this summer however as Triathlon Season started and I was spending more time swimming and biking.  I got faster.

Instead of the 1:44’s or 1:45’s that would occasionally pop up – I was now “living” in the 1:41-1:42 range.

On August 30th, the day after Landry’s birthday and the day before Dawn’s, I ran an opening repeat at 1:40.  6:02 pace for the first repeat and the thought entered my head.  “Could I actually run a repeat under 1:40?”.

I jogged slowly to the bottom, gathered myself, made the turn and blasted up to the top of the hill.  I pushed the last 100 meters as hard as I could, hit the watch to mark the top of the hill and looked at the dial.  1:39.  I would run the third and 9th repeats also in 1:39 that day and a new threshold had been reached.  All during the ramp-up to half-ironman.

This morning was the first hill repeat workout since Kerrville as I stayed away from the hill sessions in the two-week taper prior to race day and the two-week recovery period.  But today they were back.

Repeat 1: 1:40
Repeat 2: 1:38
Repeat 3: 1:36 **
Repeat 4: 1:38
Repeat 5: 1:36 **
Repeat 6: 1:37
Repeat 7: 1:37
Repeat 8: 1:37

1:40 which was only two months ago a huge barrier both physically and mentally for me to push through was this morning my “warm-up”.  Hitting 1:36 (5:53 pace) not once but twice – amazing.  But what made me the most happy as I exercised patience by only running 8 repeats this morning, 9 next week and then finally 10 the following as I want to build back to that intensity and duration gradually to err on the side of “recovering caution” post race – is that my final three repeats were rock solid at 1:37 each.  No drop off, no slowing down.  In a word.  Perfect.

Training is all about stressing your body to force adaptation, then giving it the room and recovery time it needs to adapt and grow stronger.

It would appear that the Triathlon training this summer that put us in a position to excel in Kerrville at the Half-Ironman distance has paid some other dividends.  We are stronger, faster and have more endurance than we have ever had at any time to this point.

13 weeks to Houston.  For the first time I am not thinking about whether or not we will break 3 hours in the marathon.  I’m starting to think about by how much.


The marathon is a funny race.

Not ha-ha funny, because let’s face it, personally I don’t crack a whole lot of smiles while I am out there running 26 miles and 385 yards.  But it is a race that is in rare company when it comes to the types of challenges you face and how you need to prepare your body to cope with them.

In a 5K it is all about taking your body to that red-line level just below lactate threshold pace and holding it there for 3.1 miles.

In the 10K it is about locking into a pace that is comfortably uncomfortable that you can hold for in my case just under 40 minutes.  Never really red-lining it until the closing kick, but racing at only :10-:15 seconds per mile slower than that all-out 5K effort.  It takes a lot of discipline to lock in and stay right there mile after mile.

The half-marathon, another race where pacing is king.  Drop another :20-:25 seconds per mile from that 10K effort and you are locked in racing mile after mile for 13.1, hanging on over the last three miles as every part of your body is telling you to slow down except your brain and your heart.

But the marathon is a different animal all together.  The race is simply too long to fake it.  You can’t simply hang on and gut it out if you start to fast or if you have not put in the training time and preparation.  The race taxes you physically of course, but also mentally.  Three hours is a long time to stay 100% focused stride after stride, mile after mile.

It is the marathon training calendar that prepares you for race day.  Every bit of it.  Hard days, easy days, speed work, long runs and for me Hill Repeats.

The methodical nature of training for 18 weeks, peaking for one single morning and a run of 26.2 miles is the beauty of being a marathoner.  It’s not a race where you can just throw out your race shoes and perform.   You have to work hard at it.

You have to love it a lot, but you also have to hate it a little.

I know that for me, I think about the 2010 Boston Marathon at some point on every single training run.  It might be just a fleeting thought that washes over me while I crest a hill or it could last as long as a mile on my run as I replay a section of the course in my mind and how I need to run it differently next spring.

Running Boston was a tremendous accomplishment.

Racing Boston is what I am now interested in doing.

The race standing between me today and the starting line in Hopkinton, MA in April of next year is New York City.  I am looking to show up in New York as the most well-rounded and prepared marathoner I have ever been.  Even better than I was in February at the start of the Austin Marathon.

14 weeks remain until race day and with our first triathlon now in our rear view mirror it was back to the hill this morning, and time for our weekly hill repeat workout.

The hill is 3/10 of a mile from bottom to top, climbing 60 feet in elevation.

The workout starts with a 3-mile warm-up at a relaxed pace, just enough to get the muscles loose and the blood flowing properly.  I run the repeats on Thursdays after an up-tempo workout on Tuesday and a medium-long run on Wednesdays, yesterday’s run being 10 miles.

Running hill repeats on Tuesday would be easier after Monday’s day off, but that is not the point.  The point is to run this workout on somewhat tired legs and hold consistent pace repeat after repeat.  As the workout continues on, much like the marathon, your legs get heavier and heavier. 

Holding pace repeat after repeat is difficult, just as holding race pace over the final 10 kilometers of the marathon gets harder and harder.

And harder.

Today’s workout called for 7 trips up and down the hill.  A sprint to the top at 5K effort, followed by a recovery jog down to the bottom.  A quick turn and back to the top again at 5K effort without a break, repeated 7 times.

It had been awhile since I ran this workout, so I decided to start with 7 repetitions.  Next week will be 8, with 9 the following week and 10 the week after that.  We will then keep the repeats at 10 all the way through to the taper for NYC.  All in all the repeats will add close to 5,000 feet of climbing to our training – all at 5K effort.

The equivalent of racing at top speed to the top of a 500 story skyscraper.

It’s not a lot of fun, but there is nothing like it to build strength and speed.

I made my way through the warm-up with the temperature already at 80 degrees at 5:30 a.m.  In the winter preparing for Austin I would arrive at the bottom of the hill for my first repeat and not a drop of sweat would be on my brow.  Today I was soaked down to my socks in sweat, my shorts already sticking to my legs.

I made the turn and like old times fell right into the routine:

Repeat 1:  1:48

Repeat 2:  1:43

Repeat 3:  1:46

Repeat 4:  1:47

Repeat 5:  1:47

Repeat 6:  1:46

Repeat 7:  1:45

Average time 1:46 which equates to 6:13 min./mile pace.

With the exception of the second repeat which was my fastest of the morning, the consistency was very solid.  My average repeat time of 1:46 was just :03 seconds slower than our final session in the winter before the Austin Marathon.  All indicators this summer are showing that we are faster than we were at this point one year ago as a 43-year-old.

A good omen as we prepare to chase another Marathon PR in New York City on November 6th.

We’re healthy.  We’re happy.  We’re focused.

Now it’s just a matter of putting in the work and building from workout to workout getting ready to light that fuse in November.

Marathon training is filled with workouts.  Some will be great, some will be average and some will not go the way I want them to.  The important thing is to take them one at a time and do my very best each and every morning.  If I can do that and we catch a little bit of a break this time with the weather on race day, look out.

We are going to be one dangerous runner standing among 45,000 other marathoners on Staten Island.

Boom goes the dynamite Nov. 6th.

The marathon is a cruel, cruel race.

At its core, racing 26.2 miles is in and of itself “unnatural”.

Our bodies carry enough energy or “fuel” if you will to expend about 2,000 calories.

Caloric burn is simply a function of weight over distance.  It really doesn’t matter if you are walking that distance, jogging that distance or running that distance.  Once the body has depleted its glycogen stores, it is forced to burn whatever fuel is left.

That fuel is your fat stores.  A much, much, much more inefficient fuel than that of glycogen.

The goal of the endurance athlete training for a marathon is to improve the body’s efficiency at burning fuel, and push “the wall” as far off into the future as possible.

It is there for every marathoner, lurking at the 20 or 21 mile mark.  The point where those 2,000 calories have been exhausted as well as any calories that the runner has ingested during the race.  It is gut check time at that point.  The time where all of that marathon training comes to the fore.

It is that final 10 kilometers or 6.2 miles that separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls and the goal achievers from the dreamers.

18 weeks of workouts, specifically designed to allow the marathoner to peak for race day.  Some workouts are easy, some are difficult, some are tedious, some are exhilarating.  But every once in a while, those workouts are quite simply in a word, humbling.

I knew going into my marathon training cycle that Thursday morning’s hill repeat session was going to be the most difficult workout of the 97 runs and races I had on the calendar leading up to Austin.

Just 4 days after Sunday’s Decker Half Marathon, Thursday’s Hill repeats would follow Tuesday’s 10 Kilometer Tempo run at 6:55 pace/mile and Wednesday’s 10-mile run.

My legs were tired.

I was tired.

But it is these workouts, the ones when you don’t feel perfect, that show up on race day.  I have learned to enjoy the three-week taper period before the marathon as I feel as if it is a gift that I have earned.  I have worked so hard over the previous 15 weeks, that a reduction in mileage and intensity is just what my body needs to repair itself and be ready for race day.

My friend Bob from Riverhead, NY reminded me of a quote from Dean Karnazes first cross-country coach who said:

“On the days you don’t feel like giving 100%, those are the days you need to give 120%!”.

In that spirit I laced up my Brooks Ghost 3’s and headed on my 3.5-mile warm-up that would drop me at the bottom of the hill where I run my hill repeats on Thursdays.

As I made the loop and turned toward the 3/10 of a mile hill leading up to the top of Water’s Edge, I gave a quick nod to the early morning Texas sky filled with stars and thought about our boy Dom.  What he wouldn’t give to have the chance to battle it out with 10 hill repeats this morning.

As I took off at 5K race effort I didn’t even make it to the half-way point before my legs let me know that they were protesting.  Usually this does not occur until the middle of my third repeat.

As I hit the watch under the street lamp I had clocked a 1:41.  Solid.  Right on my previous pace from weeks past, but I knew I didn’t have more than 1 or 2 at that pace left in me.  Not like the 7 or 8 I can normally knock out.

After a slow recovery jog back down to the bottom of the hill, I turned, hit my watch and headed up again.


My first ever repeat on the hill under 1:40.  I took a minute to smile to myself, fully knowing that would be the highlight of my workout.  The next 5 repeats came in at:


Just three repeats to go, but each one was going to be more and more difficult.

My quads were burning, my calves were feeling tight.  From a cardiovascular standpoint we were in great shape.  Breathing was normal, endurance was fine.  If someone could just give me my legs back I thought, we would have no problem knocking out this last set.


As I climbed to the top of the neighborhood and began my 1 mile cool-down back to the house my legs felt absolutely fried.  I struggled to get them turning and locked in on a pace around 7:20 min./mile.

Humbled on Thursday

Close to :40 seconds a mile slower than my closing mile at the Decker Challenge Half-Marathon only 4 days before.

I felt as if I was running the final mile of a 5K race.  Legs heavy, hips sore, calves tight – I pushed my way back onto the turn at the bottom of Palmbrook Drive and pulled up at our driveway.

10.2 total miles, 1 hour, 18 minutes, 12 seconds.

The toughest 10.2 miles I will have to run during this training cycle.

I took a moment to stretch against the garage and then bounded inside for a Gatorade and a shower, ready to start the day with Baby Landry.

Way to go Dad!

9 miles on Saturday, 19 miles on Sunday and we will have put a 54.4 mile week in the book.  Our most mileage ever in a single week.

Today served as a great reminder that training for a marathon is hard work.  From the outside it can look like a runner is simply cruising through their training.

IBM Uptown Classic 10K – PR 38:06

Run for the Water 10-Miler – PR 1:03:47

Decker Half Marathon – PR 1:26:45

But those performances don’t just “happen” by accident.

They are forged during the workouts like this mornings, when you keep pushing knowing full well that others would give in.  They would be tempted to only do 8 repeats, or only 6.  Some would not run them at all.  Tell themselves they will do them tomorrow or on Saturday, knowing full well the workout would be skipped.

That’s o.k., because on February 20th, I’ll beat every one of them.

Thanks for the push this morning Dom.  We’re looking good right now my brother.  I wouldn’t bet against us at Austin.