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Coach Rich Dafter
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Rich Dafter


Running 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.
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.

Hill-repeat guidelines

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 gently.

Long hill repeats
These are 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.
Find a 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 long.

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 competitors.

Short hill repeats
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 competitors.

(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 914-366-4175.)
Volume 17, Number 7, Running & FitNews

© The American Running Association, a non-profit, educational association of runners and medical professionals dedicated to promoting running nationwide. For over 30 years, the American Running Association and its professional division, the American Medical Athletic Association, have provided information and support to runners nationwide.

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