By Coach Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS
Hills are not the enemy!
Hills are potentially the most specific form of strength training runners can do. When done right, your hill training will make you a stronger all-around runner, and learning different strategies for hills will help you achieve your race day goals.
Too many runners – newbies and seasoned runners alike – struggle with hills. They make the mistake of “attacking” the uphill and “recovering” on the downhill. This is in most cases the wrong approach. By charging the uphill you’ll needlessly burn up valuable energy and strength, and then squander your opportunity to pick up speed “for free” on the downhill. Even worse, you might end up riding the brakes on the downhill, which actually requires additional, precious energy and puts you at greater risk for injury.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT HILL FOR THE WORKOUT
If you’re not used to running hills, start with the basics. Try to find a hill that is runnable; one that is not too steep and not too long. For beginners, an incline that takes around 30-60 seconds to run up is usually a good place to start. Inclines of 3-5% would be considered by most to be relatively gradual. Start small and build from there.
Have some trails in your area? Those are often a great place to get in some hill training, and you can’t beat the scenery along the way. Live in a flat area like Houston or New Orleans? You’ll have to get imaginative to find hills to run, but it’s worth the effort.
THE EVEN EFFORT METHOD
Your first lesson will be to learn to run up the hill while maintaining the same effort level that you were putting out on level ground. You want to keep your rhythm – the rate of your leg turnover – the same as what you had on level ground. As you climb uphill, your stride will naturally shorten, and your pace will slow. That’s okay, just focus on your level of effort. Your mantra should be “patience” and “even effort”. You want to have some energy left at the top of the hill. If you’re struggling and out of breath at the top, you didn’t maintain even effort!
As you crest the top of the hill, carry your momentum over the top and down the other side. When running downhill you want to avoid holding back and using your leg muscles to “brake”. Excessive braking needlessly wastes valuable muscle energy. Your mantra for the descents should be “light and quick, light and quick.” On the downhills, learn to enjoy the wonderful gift of gravity you’ve just been given. Go with the flow. Your cadence or rhythm on the downhill should be similar or slightly faster than on level ground – but you’re covering a greater distance during the flight phase (when both feet are off the ground) so your speed will be faster. Just go with it but avoid sprinting. Try to avoid leaning back too far and landing heavy on your heels.
Lots of runners aren’t aware that you have to practice downhill running. But if you can master the art of the downhill, you’ll be able to pass plenty of others on race day – always good for a much-needed emotional boost – and by not braking excessively on the downhill you’ll have more energy in the final miles of the race for that last push to the finish.
THE STEADY PACE METHOD
After you’ve mastered the “even effort method”, you’re ready to take the next step: trying to maintain your PACE as you run up a hill. You’ll know you’re ready to progress to this when you’re consistently accomplishing hills of 30-90 seconds in duration with no significant increase in perceived effort at the top (you’ve learned how to achieve an even effort) and you’re consistently running well on the downhill. For runners working hills for the first time, this may take a few weeks.
Again, start with relatively shallow hills that are short in duration (30-60 seconds long, inclines of perhaps 3-5% grade). As you master this technique you can work your way up to more challenging terrain (steeper grades or longer hills) as you feel you’re ready.
In the steady pace method, you’ll try to maintain not only the same cadence, but also try to keep your speed or pace the same as what you were doing on level ground. This is going to feel harder. Keep your face and shoulders relaxed and focus your energy on your hips to power you up the hill. You’re not sprinting or attacking… you’re just trying to maintain the same speed you had on level ground. In order to keep your speed up, you have to push off with a bit more power. As you crest the hill, carry your momentum up and over the top and focus on running well on the downhill side. Running downhill well takes good strength and it also takes practice. The downhill mantra is still “light and quick, light and quick”.
ON RACE DAY – THE PAYOFF!
If you’ve practiced a variety of hills – short ones, long ones, steep ones – and you’ve mastered the even effort and steady pace methods, you now have strategies that will help you succeed!
Is that hill in front of you fairly steep or long? You might want to pull out your “even effort” approach and run that one at the same effort level you were putting out on level ground. Is it a shorter or shallower incline? Perhaps it’s time to pull out the “steady pace” approach – resist the tendency to slow down as you go up the hill. At the crest, when those around you are starting their “recovery”, you now have the advantage because you’ve practiced downhill running! Carry your momentum over the top just as you’ve practiced and you’ll find yourself passing those around you on the downhill. Use smart hill running techniques to your advantage!
Use your imagination and find some hills near you to play with, introduce them gradually, focus on good form, and you’ll reap the benefit.
Here’s to hills – and learning to accept the free gift of gravity!
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