Monday, July 18, 2011

Hill Training

I'm back! Over the past week or so, I have been vacationing in the Caribbean on a very hilly island and that got me wanting to talk about an under-utilized workout in most runners schedule: The Hill. A good amount of runners tend to avoid hill workouts because they can cause extra stress on the knees and Achilles tendon, but in most cases, the good outweighs the bad when it comes to hills.
On a personal note, I try to do hill workouts at least once a week. I feel when it comes to racing, having the ability to surge up a hill and not crash in the later parts of the race gives you a tactical advantage over your competition. So when I went on vacation and the very first thing I saw was a mountain, I knew I was going up. Prior to leaving for vacation, I was on mapmyrun checking out if there were any cool running trails or elevation gains. Much to my delight, I saw a mountain smack dab in the middle, but it came with a catch. This mountain was 1.25 miles long and gained 1000 ft. The average grade was 22%. For those of you who don't know what grade is, it's just the rise divided by the length (and 22% is about as steep as you'll find anywhere and still be able to run). So morning 1, I set out on a mile and a half run over to the mountain and started my climb. I quickly realized this wasn't going to be as easy as I originally thought, because I was keeled over on the side of the road trying to catch my breath after only about 200 meters. I gave it my best to climb the mountain, but I only got up .75 miles and had to stop about 6 times to catch my breath. But it wasn't over yet. I turned around and was faced with .75 miles of straight downhill where it's way too steep to open up a stride and cruise along letting gravity carry me the rest of the way home. At this grade I had to constantly apply the brakes, making a conscious effort to land on my heels trying to keep from getting to an out of control speed. At the end of the run, not only were my quads burning from the climb up, but my hamstrings were on fire from the downhill portion. The next day all I could do was stare at that mountain and just look at it in disbelief knowing that it beat me. So I regrouped and tried it again two days later with my hill climbing knowledge that I already had, but was too cocky to utilize the first time:
  • Take your warmup truly as a warmup, you will need all the energy you can muster to power through the hills
  • Shorten your stride, you will really need the increased turnover in your legs to push you
  • Lean into the hill, let gravity do as much as it possibly can
  • Focus on breathing, especially when in high elevations, the air can really get away from you
So this time, I went about a minute slower per mile on my warmup, and focused on getting "in the zone" to accomplish my goal of reaching the summit without taking a break. When I reached the base of the hill, I instantly shortened my stride and leaned forward into it, not worrying about speed but on conserving enough energy to keep going. As I passed the 200 meter mark (where I stopped the first time) I had so much energy I wondered what I could have done a couple days earlier to already be tired enough to stop. I powered through muscle fatigue and shut out thoughts of stopping because it was too hard and eventually passed my old turn around point. Thinking it was going to get easier from there, I round a turn expecting to see a little ease in the grade of the hill. Nope. Thoughts started going through my head like "I almost need a hand hold to climb up any further." But because I had conserved energy in the beginning and used the proper technique for climbing, I ended up making it to the summit, walk-free. I stopped to admire the view for about 30 seconds, let out a victory yell, then started back down the mountain following the downhill running rules:
  • Look ahead, the last thing you want to do it get distracted and trip over something easily avoidable
  • Don't lean too far backward, it could cause your feet to come out from under you
  • Keep that stride short, it's going to keep your hamstrings from tightening up and keep you at a controllable speed
  • Let gravity take you with it, ease into a comfortable pace where it almost feels like work
I made it down and back to my place safe and sound and with a huge smile on my face knowing I had just beaten the mountain that had beaten me two days prior. In case you were wondering, here is the elevation graph from my Garmin.

Back to a more practical note
I know most of you don't have a mountain you can go run up, but the uphill and downhill rules apply to hills of any size. For a typical hill workout, you are going to be doing anywhere from 6-12 repeats of anything from .25-.5 miles or 1-4 minutes. My workout was extreme, I went straight uphill for 13 minutes. A common hill repeat workout is going to have much smaller distances, but they need to be done over and over again. Now, what are the benefits of doing hill workouts? Because you are fighting gravity when you run uphill, you take all the normal muscles you use when you run on flat ground, and give them a supercharged workout. They have to release more power to push you along greater forces, which build up more power in your legs, which ultimately gives you stronger, longer running strides. Hill running has been compared to sprint workouts because they work the same muscle groups, so hill workouts make you run faster. If you are running to lose weight/tone up, hills work your booty and hamstrings, which is a different set of muscles than flat running.
Let's recap:
The benefits of hill running are
  • You gain a strong, long running stride from increased power in the legs
  • Your fast twitch muscle fibers are worked, giving you faster land speed
  • You get a rocking body in the process :)
If you are anxious to try a hill workout, here is a chart for an intermediate-advanced workout:
To make it easier/harder, adjust the number of repeats. To do this workout properly, do your warmup to the hill at an easy pace, enough to get your blood flowing. When going uphill, do your best to run at a pace just outside your comfort zone. That pace will help push back your anabolic threshold, making you able to run at a faster pace more easily on race day. When you reach the top of the hill turn back right away using the downhill as your recovery. Jog down at a pretty quick pace, but not so fast that you can't catch your breath. At the bottom of the hill, turn around and start the next repeat. When you finish all of your repeats, go ahead and take a couple minutes for a breather then go do an easy cooldown at a pace you can hold a conversation in. This is a long workout, I've always been a believer in that hard workouts should be as long or longer than your race if you do anything less than a half marathon. At the half and full distances, getting up into the double digits on a speed workout will help tremendously.
So what are you waiting for?! Get out there and go run some hills! Your PR will thank you. Now go out and enjoy The Life of a Runner.

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