This is Hill Country and here in Austin we certainly have more than our fair share of great hills for running. We’re fortunate to have so many classic climbs as hills and hill repeats are an important component of any solid training program.
Running hills properly and with consistency will build strength and mental tenacity. Many compare doing a hill workout to doing a weight workout on your legs. Equally important, a hill workout is essentially a speed workout.
The first step is finding a good hill for running. It can’t be too steep or you won’t be able to push up it effectively. Instead, look for a slight rise to a semi-steeply elevated course of anywhere from 150-400 meters. In Austin, we have plenty of great running hills to choose from so add some variety by using different hills for different workouts.
As for the actual workout, run up the designated hill at your perceived 5-K pace effort without worrying about a time split. Try doing 8-12 repeats of 200 meters and make certain that the first few are easy enough that you don’t have to breathe hard to make it up. If your breathing is harder than that, slow down. After getting to the top, take a full recovery jog back down the hill before you start the next repeat.
Think about your form (running tall, head up, relaxed), stride length and turnover. Shorter and quicker steps work better going up a hill. Also, pump your arms a little quicker to get the legs to move quicker. Leg movement tends to follow arm movement, so quicker arm turnover will help increase your leg cadence.
You should do hill workouts at least a couple of times per month. This will keep the quads, glutes and hamstrings strong while at the same time give you the mental confidence not to fear a hill on a run or in a race. The more you do these workouts, the more comfortable you become with the degree of difficulty they bring.
Soon, you will be able to manage climbing Austin’s most challenging hills (Mount Bonnell, Shepherd’s Mountain, Jester, Wilke, Exposition etc) with your increased strength.
Somewhat surprisingly, running down the hills can also be helpful when preparing for a race with plenty of downhills such as the 3M Half Marathon or the Boston Marathon. Run down the same hill you just ran up at 5-K effort to condition the quads for the pounding they absorb in a race with plenty of downhills. To recover, do a slow jog up the hill for the next repeat.
Downhills are tricky though and the injury factor is high so you may want to do the downhills on a soft surface such as grass or dirt in order to soften the impact on the joints. The grass will also give you a slightly better workout on improving your balance as you run. Also, the distance can be shorter, even as little as 50 meters, to save the legs.
Running downhill can get you accustomed to using gravity to help your running. Too often people will lean back or even slow down going downhill when they are uncomfortable with their balance. As you get used to the help from gravity, you will then be able to push a downhill better in a race. Pushing on an uphill in a race is usually wasted because you get little return from the extra effort which just tires you out prematurely.
But, a downhill push can get your rhythm back and you can cover a lot of real estate by picking up the pace on a downhill. At the very least, you should become comfortable with it, so you overcome any anxiety of running faster downhill.
Also, you can use hills to do drills and work on exaggerated movements of the leg to build additional strength. Consider trying Arthur Lydiard’s hill drills, especially the high knees and bounding. Doing high knees up a 200-meter hill will get the breathing going as well. Think of the old football drill where you are lifting your knees high enough to step through tires laying on the ground and mimic that movement.
For bounding, you want to pick the knee up high but at the same time step out as far as you can. Then immediately repeat with the other leg in what becomes a slow running motion. This movement will result in overstriding, or what feels like a running one-legged jump. Again, this can be a good aerobic workout like the high knees.
Next time you are facing a big hill, look at is an opportunity to get stronger and faster. Running hills will pay off with big dividends, especially as we approach such hilly Austin races as the Decker Challenge (December 7th), 3M Half (January 25th) and, of course, the Austin Marathon on February 15th.
Mac Allen is the coach of Team Mac (www.teammac.co) for racing in distances ranging from 800 meters through the ultramarathon. A top-flight master competitor, Mac has over 15 years of coaching experience.