Taking the hilly route

Hill training can provide a great boost to your fitness, especially if you add some variety, writes David Lowes

Posted on November 17, 2011 by
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Along with hill repetition sessions, most runners will include some form of uphill running in their training repertoire in many differing guises. First and foremost, before undertaking any hill related session, why do we do them? Is it because we want to get stronger in general or is it because we want to improve our hill running ability for crosscountry and road running?

The answer for most of course is probably both of those reasons. In cross-country races in particular, perhaps more races have been won on the hills (up and down) than on the flatter sections.

Speedwork against a resistance

Hills in their basic form are speed or speed-endurance sessions, depending on their length, against a resistance. You try to run at a set pace, but the incline makes you work harder to keep that momentum going. Your cadence also has to be modified to run as efficiently as possible. It can be argued that hills are a form of strength endurance, especially if a hefty amount of reps and sharper inclines are incurred. Whatever term the individual uses, they are a hard workout with many other additional benefits.

Why do track runners do hill sessions? After all, there are no hills on a track, although I’m sure many athletes might argue that on the last lap of a 10,000m the track feels anything but flat! I have heard an eminent coach ask, “Why should track runners include hills when there are none on a track?”

The initial aspect to consider is the event being targeted and what exactly is hoped to be gained from the workload. During the winter months, 400/800m types may favour the shorter steeper hills (60-100m duration with a 35-45-degree incline). Middle and long-distance exponents, though, will look for much longer inclines on a 20-30-degree incline of at least one to three minutes to improve lactate tolerance.

Some athletes, in particular those who run 400m, may even subject themselves to “bounding” up short, steep inclines as part of their power training. Indeed, many of the great Finnish long-distance runners of the Seventies included these in their training regime, no doubt evolved from the winter training ethos of their cross-country skiers. Be warned though, it isn’t wise to attempt these unless supremely conditioned and injury-free.

As for the surface, whether roads, grass, trails or even sand, this will need some thought. Most will use a road hill and varying the chosen incline will break up any monotony.

Sessions can be done weekly or fortnightly or even in the same session in the form of two different locations representing two sets.

All hill sessions should focus on good form: exaggerated high knee-lift, slight forward body lean, “sprinting” arms, head focused 10-15m in front, powerful push off the toes and drive through the stride cycle. A deterioration of form, such as a sinking of the hips, “jogging” arms and head down will lead to a flat-footed posture and a reduction in biomechanical efficiency, which could result in unnecessary straining on calves, knees, hips and lower back and a risk of injury. Avoid running up too steep a hill – excessive inclines (above 45 degrees) may feel like a good workout, but they put undue stresses on Achilles tendons, calves and even the lower back.

Types of hill sessions

For youngsters, hills are a great way of helping with their form while giving them a good workout at the same time. Distances of 100m are a good start with a slow jog back down before commencing the next rep. Speedy descents should be avoided, especially on tarmac, to prevent undue pounding on the knees. There is evidence, however, for older athletes that this pounding can help strengthen the quads at the bone ends. Grass hills are great for more comfortable descents, but the appropriate footwear must be chosen if the surface could be slippery.

If we take an example of a 600m hill, this does not mean that every week the athlete runs exactly the same distance. For variation, add another 100m – after all, many athletes can run well up a hill but find it di cult to keep the momentum going once at the top. The natural response is to slow down, but if an athlete can maintain their pace or even go faster, then the fear of tiredness can be a thing of the past. Another add-on is to run 100m on the flat before embarking on the hill and once the athlete becomes fitter and stronger they can integrate the 100m on the flat at the bottom and the top.

A problem with hill sessions is that the longer you run, the longer the recovery period will become – a three-minute hill can equate to around three to five minutes of descent, which is much too long for the session to have its intended purpose. Athletes such as Seb Coe and Liz McColgan in their heyday had their coach wait for them at the top of the hill in a car and ferry them back down quickly to the bottom to recommence the next rep so that they didn’t fully recover.

For those who don’t have the luxury or means of that scenario, a different type of session will have to be considered. This can take the form of a continuous loop course where, for example, the distance is 600m with uphill, downhill and flat sections and the athlete simply runs for around 20-25 minutes non-stop going hard uphill and on the flat while taking it easier to recover on the descent. The loop can be completely individualised and may even include two uphill sections. Again, supremely well-conditioned athletes can increase the distance run to 30 minutes and above and those who find the aforementioned timescale too tough can simply reduce the time run to 10 minutes and run two sets with a three to five-minute recovery.

From treadmills to sand dunes

Another option where hills are absent or not long enough is a treadmill. First, decide what gradient and speed you can handle for a set time. If you are unsure, start off at 10-12 degrees at around 10mph before eventually progressing to 15-20 degrees and a faster speed. If the session is 5 x 5 minutes up a 12-degree incline then start with some steady running (the speed that you will running on the incline) on a two-degree incline as part of a warm-up for 10-20 minutes at, for instance, 10mph.

Your effort begins when the ramp begins to rise from two to 12 degrees and ends after five minutes when the ramp is lowered to your starting point. It is up to the individual how much recovery is needed, but allow at least 90-120 seconds of constant running before the ramp begins to rise again. Beware of being too macho! It is not the intention to get the speed or ramp up as high as possible. Imagine the treadmill is your normal road hill and the perception of effort should be the same.

Without doubt the most arduous surface for a hill workout is soft sand. Anyone who has experienced the Big Dipper at Merthyr Mawr in South Wales will know what effect that can have on an athlete’s quads. It is doubtful that this burn and numbness can be replicated in any other form of training. “Agony” is one of the kinder words that athletes tend to mention!

However, those who can reach a coastal area that has sand dunes now and again can benefit from an intense workout without having to use a massive hill by running around a short loop course that goes mildly up and down. Soft sand is unique, the more you run on it, the more it churns up, so any session will naturally become harder.

Although much emphasis is placed on the uphills, descents need to be practised too. How many cross-country runners leave the opposition for dead going uphill only to find they lose valuable ground coming down a hill? Some people are naturals at running quickly downhill while others need to include some sessions to perfect the art – relaxed body, forward lean and a long and light stride with no braking caused by tension in the legs. Another useful aspect of the downhills is assistive running on a slight gradient (5-10 degrees) and this is used for speedier running and form maintenance, which will make the athlete run faster than normal with a slightly longer stride than usual.

So, although there are no hills on a track, any athlete who can handle the resistance of hills is obviously going to feel easier and in control when on a synthetic surface and maybe those hills may come into play over the final 200m of a track race when all others are around you are floundering.

Above all else, hills are a great strength provider, giving the legs strength and ultimately the bounce they need in competition. Hills are tough and this toughness should reflect in an athlete’s mind-set. Conquer hills and you’ll conquer your competitors!

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