Taking on the hills

2015-01-10 00:00

RUNNING hills is a key session for any runner looking to improve style, strength, speed and even endurance.

That seems a pretty good return for a small investment, but earning those benefits requires some discipline and focus.

For many runners, the idea of a hill session is simply to get out and run for an hour or so over a hilly route.

It’s not hard to find a hilly course in most South African cities and in regions such as Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Johannesburg and the Garden Route, the challenge can be to find a flat route.

However, running hilly routes, particularly in groups, is often more detrimental than beneficial. The problem is that runners, particularly when they know the route, will start the run at a pace they have, subconsciously, to stay with their peers on the final climb.

In other words, the whole session is run in a fashion that allows them to maintain their place and status relative to their training partners.

The majority of the run is simply a compromise of pace.

By comparison, selecting a specific hill and doing a number of uphill repeats allows you to be specific about the angle of incline, the length of effort and how many efforts you do. Each effort is monitored to ensure there is benefit.

In this way, you don’t have to be concerned about over-spending energy in one repeat, as you simply stop when you have reached the desired total effort. More importantly, the quality of each repeat can be maintained, as there is no concern that you may fail to make it back to the start of the run.

The walk and jog recovery down to the base of the hill allows time for reflection on the previous effort, and because each repeat is over the same hill and conditions, it is easy to get a feel for the quality and intensity of each effort.

Obviously, if this is the same hill each week or session, then there is also direct monitoring of your progression over a period of time.

For many years, I believed short hill sessions were about how fast you could go up the hill. Each run was a trial to get the optimum of leg speed and stride length for that specific hill, to get up to the point in the least time. Then one game-changing morning I opted to relax my pace very slightly, and put specific focus on driving my arm and hand back behind me, lifting my knee, and pushing back as the foot touched the tar.

I turned a mental vision into a driving action with a determined effort on pushing backward with legs and arms.

It meant that I lost perhaps five or eight metres from the distance that I ran up the hill, but it resulted in a better workout, extending the stride length, using better hip-flexor action, greater flex of the ankle, greater use of glute muscles, and a better overall style.

This more specific muscle workout was of course highlighted over the two following days with a mild case of muscle stiffness — a sure sign of a good workout that will result in strength improvement.

While running a hilly route can be rewarding particularly when you crest out on top of a specific landmark, or arrive at a panoramic viewpoint, such runs rarely have the consistency of quality or intensity of hill repeats that will deliver the desired outcomes. In addition, a hill repeat session tends to take shorter overall training time and can even be undertaken at lunchtime.

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