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February 5, 2007

Hill Running 101

One sometimes-overlooked aspect of having a newspaper column is the amount of time required to respond to the hundreds of e-mails that pour into our inbox each month.

OK ... that's a bit of an exaggeration. But we do get a few e-mails every now and then, and at this time of year, the queries frequently have a common theme: how to prepare for the Big Sur Marathon.

The answer we give is remarkably simple: do tons of hill training. Of course, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that we often turn simple answers into 800-word essays. That's exactly what happened with our Monterey Herald article last week.


Running Life 2/1/07: "Head for the Hills!"

Every winter, we receive e-mails from people looking for tips on training for the Big Sur Marathon at the end of April.

Our typical response is something like this: Run on hills. Run every hill you can find. Big hills and small hills. Steep hills and gradual hills. Run up and down hundreds and hundreds of hills. And when your legs are exhausted and you’re completely sick of running on hills … go out and run even more hills, to prepare for the final miles of the race.

The Big Sur course is a unique challenge in marathoning because of its relentless undulation. If you are training for the race, you should be heading for the hills as much as possible. But it’s not only marathoners who benefit from this kind of training.

Anyone who wants to be a better runner should incorporate hill training to his or her routine. Novice runners are sometimes apprehensive about running on hills, but any veteran racer knows that hills are the runner’s best friend. So if you are a strictly flat-terrain runner, get off the straight and narrow, and spice up your running with some challenging hills.

The benefits of hill running are numerous. From a physiological standpoint, hill running burns more calories, makes your muscles stronger, and improves your body’s oxygen carrying capacity. These changes will make you faster once you return to flat terrain. Frank Shorter, gold medalist in the 1972 Olympic marathon, famously said that, “Hills are speed work in disguise”.

Psychologically, hill running forges great strength of character. There’s nothing like the feeling of conquering a hill that once seemed insurmountable, or of reaching the summit of a long, grueling climb. And the views from the top are incredible.

Experienced runners become emotionally attached to their favorite climbs, as these hills are often the sites of their most memorable runs. In fact, most of our major local climbs have been given distinguishing nicknames. Some are intimidating, such as Black Death, The Grind, or Hurricane Point. Others are more affectionate or descriptive, such as The Three Bears, Clara’s Summit, Skyclimb (in Toro Park), or Sky Trail (in Garland Ranch).

Marathon runners sometimes ask if they can simulate hills on the treadmill. Our answer is no – because proper hill training means going both up and down the hills. Downhill running is the primary cause of soreness (and in severe cases, injuries) as the quadriceps muscles absorb the impact of your body weight plus gravity with each step. The only way to properly prepare for this is to gradually adapt your legs to increasing amounts of downhill running.

Proper technique is important. Going uphill, run with an equal effort as you use on flat surfaces. This means you will naturally slow down and shorten your stride as the slope increases. Your tendency will be to lean into the hill – but be sure the lean is coming from your ankles, not from bending over at the waist.

Downhill technique is less natural. Your tendency will be to take longer strides, faster steps, and to lean backwards. But try to stay perpendicular to the downhill slope. Shorten your stride length, let your knees bend slightly on impact, and lean your body slightly forward. If you do these parts correctly, it’s OK to let your step rate become faster as you are running down the hill.

Good downhill running requires thinking and adapting. That’s why it takes a lot of practice.

If you are training for Big Sur, we recommend a workout of hill repeats once per week. These can be done on any hill that requires 1 to 3 minutes to climb from the bottom to the top. Start with a small number like 4 or 6, and increase the repetitions each week. Your effort up the hill should be hard, but not all out. Going down, keep an easy effort and concentrate on form. Run continuously for the entire workout.

During January and February, many local runners use the road up to Cypress Community Church off Hwy 68 for a weekly early morning hill workout. We call these Church Hill repeats, and by the end of each workout we are sometimes praying for mercy. It is almost a spiritual experience.

The church used to have a sign halfway up the hill that said, “Make A Difference!” It obviously wasn’t placed there for us runners, but the sentiments were very appropriate for the workout. Church hill repeats make a significant difference in our running performance, and in our preparation for the spring marathon season.

So take our advice and head for the hills. If the workouts initially seem painful, feel free to curse at us while you’re doing them. But then be sure to thank us when all that hill training helps you finish the Big Sur Marathon this April.


Backofpack 2/5/07, 5:22 AM  

Big Sur is in our sights for next year. It didn't quite work in this year with the other marathons we've got on tap, but we are hoping it (or if we are really lucky, Reykjavik) will be next year's destination marathon. I'll keep the hill running going!

Deene 2/5/07, 10:29 AM  

Big Sur was on the front page of our Sunday paper's travel section, this made me think of you. I'd love to run it someday.

Journey to a Centum 2/5/07, 9:08 PM  

Very nice article, your readers are lucky to have you as an advisor.

The downhill training is just as important so you don't end up doing the "Boston Shuffle" after the race. Seems like you need to go out and tear up your quads to build the strength to run fast downhill when gravity is in your favor.

As Michelle said we plan on running Big Sur within the next two years.


JohnF 2/6/07, 4:50 AM  

Big Sur has been on my list for some time. Looking forward to making it out there one of these years.

Downhillnut 2/6/07, 9:09 PM  

Lots of good tips there. It took me several years to really appreciate hills, even though I'd been told about the training benefits. I liked running DOWN, just had a hard time with the up part.

The more I do, though, the more I like 'em. I especially enjoy cresting summits now - quite exhilirating, like crossing finish lines!

Sarah 2/6/07, 9:44 PM  

How did you know I've been thinking about hills a lot lately?...particularly downhill training. : ) I've got hills in nearly every run I do so I can't avoid them. I give them names. My fav is Punishment Hill.

craig 2/7/07, 11:25 PM  

Thanks for the post Donald. I learned something today.

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