I despise running hills. Not all hills, the gently inclining ones don’t bother me, and of course, going down a hill is no problem, but I hate those steep, evil looking ones that you can see from a mile away that you know are going to suck all hope and happiness from your legs and mind. And, you may be thinking, Ashley, you live in Gainesville, FL; there aren’t any hills in the entire state! Wrong. I live at the top of a stretch of road lovingly called “the bacon strip” for its many unavoidable ridges and valleys. My arch-enemy is the hill that leads up to my apartment complex. It is steep, a good 20 degrees (ok, I may be exaggerating) and it is long, about .4 mile (this I have measured), and it kicks my butt every time. So, it’s time for me to fight back and let you in on how to do it. After a bit of research, I’ve assembled some tricks and tools to destroying the hills without losing your composure, and I’ve provided some training tips on using hills to make you a better and stronger runner.
The Mental Game
Hills are just as mental as they are physical. “Change the mind and the body will follow” is what I like to think. Adjusting your attitude toward hills and using some Jedi mind tricks will help get yourself up the hills fast.
1. Don’t avoid them! Unless your training calls for a specific flat course, try and integrate as many hills into your training as possible. By setting up hills as this sort of lurking monster, you mentally create an obstacle. And of course, it is our nature to avoid obstacles. The trick is not to think of hills as an obstacle, but as a tool to make you stronger. Remember this and use it as a mantra. Learn to embrace the hill.
2. Try the 20-yard trick. This one works really well for me. As you start up the hill, pick an object ( a pole, street light, etc) about 20 yards ahead of you. Don’t look at the top of the hill, just focus and train your eyes on the object. Examine the object: What color is it? How tall does it look to be? What would it taste like if you cooked it? Before you know you will be at your object, and it’s time to pick another object 20 yards ahead and repeat the focusing process.
Adjusting your body
Just like a car, we need to go into “low gear” to get up hills at the same speed. This requires some changes in your running form to propel yourself upwards with the same amount of energy. Naturally, this causes a slower pace, which you can make up for in the flats or on the downhill. The goal is to not be out of breath at the top.
Form: Keep your head up! Don’t look at your feet, but look straight ahead (or at your 20-yard object). Your back should be straight. Focus on keeping a straight line in your spine. You can bend over slightly at the hips while keeping a straight back (taller people will tend to do this). Keep your upper body (especially your shoulders) relaxed.
Stride: Remember, we’re going into low gear. Many runners make the mistake of lengthening their strides to try and get up a hill, but the trick is to use a short, quick stride, turning your legs over as quickly as possible. Make sure to adjust your stride as the angle of the hill changes. If it shallows out on top, lengthen your strides a little more. Keep thinking “even effort”.
Arms: Creating momentum with your arms is a big deal for getting up a big hill. As you approach the hill, start dropping your hands closer to your hips and creating larger motions with your arms. You should be moving them from the shoulders, not the elbows. It is a pretty similar motion to using a Nordictrack. By moving your arms lower, you lower where your momentum is coming from, which helps your legs propel you up the hill.
Feet: Don’t plop. If you start making lots of noise with your feet, you need to adjust your form. Concentrate on keeping the backs of your legs relaxed, allowing for a “bounding” motion from your feet. Keep your feet as light and springy as possible.
This is the fun part. Enjoy your downhill and don’t hold yourself back. Lengthen your strides as much as possible. Stay light on your feet and relax your body. If you can feel your muscles and cheeks jiggling, you are doing it right! The key point in going down is this: you can go faster than you think and still stay in control.
The more you run on hills, the less difficult they will become and the stronger you will get. In fact, my training program has an entire month devoted to running hills. Try these workouts to train your body to conquer any hill.
Strength Hill Repeats
This is the type of workout that Lydiard advances in his training program (which I follow). The main goal of these repeats is to build leg strength, so your form is a bit different then what I describe above. Locate a hill about a quarter of a mile long with an incline of 5 degrees and a 200-meter flat at the top and at the bottom. Jog the 200-meter flat and approach the hill. Keeping your back straight and head up, bound up the hill, pushing hard off of each foot and trying to get your strides as long as possible. It is almost a jumping motion, springing off one foot and landing as far away with the other. Go at your own pace. When you get to the top, slow down and jog the 200 meters at the top. Cruise your way down and do it again. Do this for 30-45 minutes twice a week.
10-second Hill Sprints
At the end of an easy run (20-40 minutes) find a steep hill. Do two 10 second hill sprints. The first should be fast, but not all out. The second should be at top speed. Watch your form! Jog backwards slowly downhill to recover. Add one more repeat each week until you get to eight total.
Warm up by jogging for 15-20 minutes. Find a moderate hill. For the first set, at a fast pace, do 3 X 10-second hill repeats. Jog backwards downhill in between each rep. Rest for a full 2 minutes before doing the next set. For the second set, do 2 X 20-second hill repeats at a slightly slower pace than the first set. Jog backwards in between each. For the third set, do 1 X 30-second hill repeat at medium pace. Rest for five minutes and then count back down. Do a fourth set of 2 X 20-second hill repeats at the same pace as the second set. Rest. Finish with a fifth set of 3 X 10-second repeats at the same pace as set #1. Jog home to cool down.
As I was researching this topic, I realized that some of the top runners in the world use hill training to win races. In fact, Frank Shorter, a Florida Track Club runner, attributes his Olympic marathon gold and silver medals to training on the hills of Gainesville’s “bacon strip” of NW 16th Ave. It appears I am conquering hills and following in the footsteps of legend. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is!
Alright runners! Armed with this information and training, it is time for you and me to face the hills and knock them flat.
Ashley is a geologist at Schlumberger, specializing in geologic modeling software. She completed her Masters degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid runner, cyclist, and rock climber. She will pretty much race anything and everything. You can find her hanging out on White Oak in Houston, TX or climbing and running in Austin.