Hills: Learn to love the burn

Feb 15, 2020

Hill training

Running hills has many benefits, whether you’re an experienced or new runner. However hill training is often neglected in training programmes because (if you do them right), they can be gruelling workouts that test you, inside and out. If you’re a runner wanting to improve your speed and endurance, it’s essential to mix up your training sessions and include quality workouts, like speedwork, track, time trials and hills.

We live in a country with abundant mountain ranges and beautiful reserves – I have run in almost every single province for over 10 years and am yet to find a flat road running route. There are many races that sell their runs as flat and fast, but somehow an incline or steep gradient sneaks it’s way in. In Cape Town, the Two Oceans Marathon, although one of the most beautiful races in the world, is also one of the toughest.

To become stronger on hills in races, you need to include these in your training, consistently. Digging deep into that pain cave in training will teach you how to handle these hard conditions on race day. A huge part of learning to love the burn is toughening yourself up mentally so you can tackle these mountains with enthusiasm and vigour. So many people I speak to let hills overpower them in races and avoid including these in training. The logic doesn’t really add up, does it? Imagine the reward and the next level of yourself if you can teach yourself to embrace climbing hills in running, instead of fearing them? Take back your power!

Hill training (consistently) has huge benefits for your strength as a runner and for your running economy, if you do these right. Other benefits of climbing include improved running form by improving your knee lift, your cadence and your forefoot strike, increased power output, improved endurance and a healthier heart.

Here are my top tips for climbing your Everest:

  • Choose a not-so-steep hill – anything more than 9% is more efficient to walk than run. Keep the intervals under a minute or even under 30 seconds, depending on your race goals. Recruiting the fast-twitch muscle fibres used to power up hills for short periods of time will get your nervous system firing.
  • Go fast – slowing down and striking off your heel will tire you out and will make you slower. Imagine the ground as a trampoline and spring off your forefoot with each step.
  • Avoid the lean – avoid leaning forward too much and bending at the waist. This will prevent you from exerting power when you run hills.
  • Drive with your arms – use your arms to generate power when you climb hills. Pump them faster but avoid uncontrolled swinging and flailing around.
  • Have fun on the downs – let gravity carry you. Don’t kill yourself racing downhill or lean backwards – rather conserve your energy for when you need it most.

As with anything, practice makes perfect so test these tips out in training and then apply them on race day. Your body is a machine and needs to adapt – be patient with your progress.

Christine Prokopiak

Christine is a running coach and nutrition specialist based with Sole Buddies #LiveLife in Cape Town. She is also the co-anchor for the GerhardandChristineLiveLife podcast, and co-founder of For The Long Run, a social upliftment project and registered NPO in Fisantekraal. Read more about Sole Buddies here. 

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