Hills Can be a Key to
Improving Your Performance
Let's face it, hills hurt. They tire you
out. They slow you down. Fortunately, running hills is an acquired skill.
Anyone can improve. Look at it this way, the better you get on them the more
runners you can pass (or avoid getting passed by) on hills in races, and the
less time you'll lose on the finishing clock. Even if you race on the flats,
hills will help improve performance.
Why take the hill-pill: A big
advantage of hill training is that it allows you to simultaneously work on
aerobic, anaerobic, and muscular fitness. Different hill workouts can hit a
variety of training goals. Running
hills, like lifting weights, is resistance training. Hills strengthen the leg
muscles to meet the specific demands of running. By working hard on hills, you
force the muscles to overcome the incline and resistance of gravity. This
strengthens the driving muscles the hamstrings, calves, buttocks, and
particularly the quadriceps, which don't get much work on the flats. Fatigued
quads are particularly a problem late in races, especially marathons. It's hard
to pick your feet up and move them forward if the quads are growing tired of
this important repetitive task.
Ankles strengthen as the feet push off to
bound up hills. Since you have to really pump the arms to get up hills, your
upper body is strengthened, too.
With hill training, you'll increase
resistance to fatigue during races. That will help you maintain good running
form and a steady pace. Since you have to concentrate on driving the arms,
lifting the knees and pushing off the feet to get up hills in training, running
form will be exaggerated and improved.
As with fast intervals, you'll also be able to tolerate greater levels
of lactic acid, and extend your lactate threshold.
Hill training bolsters your confidence, too.
You don't have to do repeats up the same hill in a race, so a few scattered
hills on race day won't seem so bad. As you develop courage by hill training
you won't be intimidated by one of those killer hills during a race. You'll
better tolerate the discomfort of overcoming hills and be psychologically
prepared to "hang on" to the top.
In fact, you may even look forward to tough
hills since you'll gain on your competition.Hill-repeat
You'll be able to attack the
hill before it attacks you.
Hill training is valuable when preparing for
all distances, but particularly marathons. Add it at the beginning of the
strengthening phase of your training cycle as a transition to fast track
intervals. By strengthening muscles before you start training fast, you'll
minimize injury and increase the quality of track workouts. But hills can also
be used to sharpen for races, especially hilly events.
Although running hills
often at training pace improves overall strength, it won't make you faster. To
get that benefit, you have to repetitively work the hills hard. You exaggerate
form and effort to be able to run up hills in races more efficiently and
to run faster on the flats, too.
Before starting any type of hill training,
ease into it by running over hilly courses two or three times a week,
increasing the intensity slightly on the uphills. When you're ready for hill
repeats, start conservatively with moderate hills.
Ease into hill repeats by
running 10K race pace or tempo pace. To increase distance-running strength,
progressively increase the grade, speed, and number of hill repeats but
not all at once a little at a time as you get more fit.
Hill repeats are basically like track
intervals, but you go up instead of around. Run easy for 15 to 30 minutes, then
run slightly faster than training pace up the hill to further prepare the body
for the intensity of these workouts. Run the first repeat slightly slower than
your goal intensity. Try to run the rest of the workout at goal intensity.
Run fast, but under control. Think of it as
about 85% effort, or about as hard or slightly faster than you would work the
hills in a typical race. If your pace slows dramatically or form and breathing
become ragged, reassess the intensity or abort the workout.
Begin your effort 20 yards from the base of
the hill so you can gather speed before starting up the grade. This eliminates
the strain of a standing start on a steep slope. Continue running hard for
another 20 yards on the flats, if possible, at the top of the hill. This tactic
helps you pull away from competitors on race day.
At the top, don't stop. This is a continuous
run at intermittent paces. Recover by running back down nice and easy. The
recovery run should take about three times as long as it took you to run up a
short, steep hill. Return somewhat faster on a longer, gentler hill: about
twice the time it took you to go up. If you have to walk down all or part of
the way, you've run up too fast. The steeper the hill, the less shock you'll
get going up, but the more shock you'll get going down. Relax and run down
Long hill repeats
analogous to running long intervals on the track. Find a moderate-grade (5% to
8% or three to four degrees) hill just steep enough to try the legs and just
long enough to try the mind. Long hills are particularly good for building
strength and endurance for races of half-marathon to the marathon.
hill that is about one-quarter to one half-mile in length. It should take about
two to five minutes to run up at your 5K to 10K race pace effort or slightly
faster. If the hill is too long, the recovery coming back down will be too
If you can't find a long-enough hill, run
hard on the flats going into the hill so your total hard effort is at least
three minutes. Do about three to five repeats, five to 10 for more experienced
These are particularly good for sharpening speed for races of
5K to 10K since they are run at faster than race-pace effort. They are of
similar benefit as short, hard- and fast-paced intervals on the track.
Pick a hill that's 50 to
200 yards in length and steep enough (10% to 15% or seven to nine degree grade)
to really challenge you, but not so steep that it makes good form impossible.
It should take about 30 to 90 seconds to get to the top.
If the hill is too steep
or too long, you won't be able to maintain a strong effort to the top. You
don't have to run these too hard since gravity will take care of the intensity.
Do not sprint all-out. Envision you're running to a 5K-race finish line at the
crest of the hill. Do about four to six repeats, six to 12 for more experienced
(This column is adapted
from the completely rewritten third edition of The Competitive Runner's
Handbook released in April 1999. This book as well as The Runner's Handbook and
The Runner's Training Diary are available at The American Running Store, or
call 1-800-776-2732 to order. For more information concerning Bob Glover's
running classes offered through the New York Road Runners Club call
Volume 17, Number 7, Running & FitNews
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