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Posted: June 2, 2005

Athletics: An Uphill Battle?

By Paul Greer

Many runners consider hills to be a hindrance, an obstacle getting in the way of the goal at hand. So why, many runners would say, should one train on hills? How's this, for starters; nearly 90% of all distance runners are deficient in muscular strength, and hill workouts are specifically designed to build just this - the muscular and cardiovascular strength we lack. For this reason it is vital for all runners to implement hill training in their regimen. When you run hills, you develop elastic muscle fibers - these are your most significant source of power!

Still not convinced? Here are two additional benefits you'll achieve from hill workouts.

1. Increased leg strength and power. Since hill training builds leg strength, it is an excellent addition to early conditioning programs; it will help you prepare for the faster running and interval training you'll be doing later.

2. Superior endurance. You'll be able to run faster for longer periods of time because hill running allows middle and long distance runners to build lactate tolerance without running faster than race pace. This type of training also requires both steady state and oxygen depleting efforts, which provides you with a good transition from aerobic to anaerobic capacity training. This transition will radically increase your endurance as your body develops a greater tolerance for the build-up of lactate acid. This is essential in enhancing anaerobic fitness.

Hills are an excellent and surprisingly underused element in a runner's training regimen and hill training can continue to provide benefits in power, leg strength, anaerobic fitness and speed throughout your training and racing career.

Technique

The BEST terrain to run on is grass and trails. These surfaces are easier on you joints, knees, ankles and lower back. If you must share a hill with vehicles, never choose a hill with a cross street that doesn't have a stop sign. Also, when you hill run, you always want to face traffic so you can see which SUV you might have to avoid.

In terms of technique, the biomechanics of efficient uphill and downhill running differ from running on flat surfaces. When running uphill, it is important to keep your body's center of mass as high as possible to optimize stride length. To accomplish this you must run as tall as possible with your head up and eyes on the horizon line. Exaggerating your forward lean into the hill is a common mistake that only serves to lower your center of mass and decrease stride length.

For distance runners, good uphill running begins with economy of effort. Accelerating into the ascent up a hill and trying to work the hill can expend more energy than it would take to run three to four times the same distance on flat terrain. Your goal should always be to crest the hill and immediately return to race pace. Many runners make the mistake of expending too much energy running up the hill. They end up gasping for breath, reducing their effort, and slowing their pace at the top of the hill in order to recover.

When approaching downhill relief, stay relaxed and don't over stride! Over striding pounds your feet, stresses your hamstrings and overuses your quadriceps at each footfall. Also try to keep your feet lower to the ground - it is critical to maintain control. As a result of running downhill, your stride will cover more ground than it does on flat terrain, and the distance traveled will feel slightly shorter. Remember to touch lightly with each step and let the steepness of the hill dictate your stride rate. If you start going too fast, shorten your stride slightly until it's under control. On gentle downgrades, lean forward slightly to increase your speed. Be careful, leaning too much may chop your stride or make you go too fast. Visualize gravity pulling you downhill. The momentum you gain going downhill is a wonderful source of energy as you move to level terrain or to another hill. Always remember, on the downhill, increase your stride rhythm somewhat in response to the down slope, but do not overstride!

It is crucial to concentrate on your form when running hills. If you're struggling to maintain your form in training, don't run as hard and run only half the distance of the hill.

Many runners ask "when should I do hill training?". Like the long run that all distance runners should be doing, you'll run hills once a week, but you won't run hill repetitions or hill circuits throughout the year. I suggest you emphasize hill training for twelve to fifteen weeks in your initial and mid stages of training.

King Of The Hills!

Below are four of the greatest hill workouts I have come across over the 20 years I have been involved in coaching: Hill Repeats, the Three Minute Steady-State, Hill Circuts, and Hill Circuts Concentrating on Form.

Hill Repeats: Find a hill that's a 4% to 10% grade and takes approximately 90 seconds to run. You'll run the hill from six to ten times in the workout, depending on how far along you are in your training. Before you run the hill, you'll need to do a 15 to 20 minute warm-up. Once you're well warmed-up, stretch for a few minutes and then complete six 100-meter strides. After this you are officially ready for Hill Repeats. Remember that, when you're running uphill, you should shorten your stride, lift your knees, and lean forward slightly. The recovery is the time required to run back down. As soon as you reach the bottom, you'll start back up again. Finish the workout with an easy 20 minute jog.

Three Minute Steady-State: If you're lucky enough to live in or near the mountains, this is a great workout for raising your lactate threshold velocity (the speed above which fatigue sets in quickly). First, find a hill that will take you approximately 25 minutes to run from bottom to top. Using your heart rate monitor, run up the hill/mountain hard until you reach 80 - 85% of your maximum heart rate. Maintain that rate for three minutes. You'll then do a two-minute recovery jog, still heading uphill. Continue alternating three minutes hard with two minutes easy until you've run for 25 minutes.

Hill Circuits: Find a location where you can run a succession of hills for 45 minutes to one hour. An ideal route would be one with three to five hills that take 30 minutes total to run. You can run out for 30 minutes, then turn around and run back the same set of hills. You'll run each hill hard, then do an easy jog to the next one.

Hill Circuits Concentrating On Form: If you're looking for a difficult workout, this is your BLACK DIAMOND! Do it once every other week or so and you'll reap tremendous benefits. Run the same set of hills as in the hill circuit workout, but concentrate on running a steady pace between the hills instead of easy jogging. You'll emphasize pace - not on the hill, but from hill to hill. Use the hill to concentrate on your form, not speed. Then, when you crest the top of the hill, take five to fifteen quick steps off the top and get back into the steady pace you'll maintain on the flats until you reach the next hill. The key to the success of this workout is that you'll never quite feel you've had a full recovery. Along with making you stronger, this workout will teach you how to effectively race hills. Too often runners will charge up a hill in a race, slow down significantly at the top and then be passed by competitors because they've run out of gas and need to recover. Don't let it happen to you! Do this workout regularly and you'll blow your competition away!

These hill regimens have been tried and tested and are guaranteed to improve your distance running performances. It's time you become KING OF THE HILLS!

Paul Greer
San Diego Track Club Coach


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© Copyright 2004 Peak Running Performance. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission


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