What the Hill!?

Recently, I had a runner/client ask me a question about hill running. He wanted to know if it’s best to look at the top of the hill or just a few feet ahead to avoid getting discouraged. It was a question I had never thought about until now. And now that I have thought about it, here’s my response to all of you wondering about the best ways to tackle those dreaded, awful hills.

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(Hills are a great way to challenge yourself and break up the monotony of your usual run)

Hill running is one of the best ways to improve. You’ll use different muscles in your legs and arms. It’ll help boost your cardiovascular system and running economy. Per Runner’s World, it’ll also quickens your stride, expand stride length and can even protect your leg muscles against soreness. In short, hill running will make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner.

Personally, I also believe incorporating hills into some of your runs will help when you have a hilly race. Your body will be used to running up hills so it’ll be less of a shock to it. That means you won’t slow down as much. Also, mentally you’ll know you can tackle a hill or two.

I was fortunate growing up in Hacienda Heights, CA. as a young runner in middle and high school. I ran either steep hills on streets or trails or gradual hills on streets pretty much all the time. Often, both types of hills were involved in the same run. This definitely helped myself and my cross country teammates when races were on hilly courses such as the world famous Mt. SAC course nearby. (I raced on the Mt. SAC course 16 times in my four years of high school!)

Fast-forward to me living in Pasadena, also a hilly city. Again, almost every run either has a gradual or steep hill–sometimes both! This, I feel, has made me a stronger runner both physically and mentally. If you can conquer a steep hill or two on a training run, you can do it in a race. I can assure you of this. To be honest, and I may sound a bit like a braggart, but the infamous Heartbreak Hill of the Boston Marathon wasn’t hard for me. I didn’t understand all the hype. I attribute that to all my training on hilly streets.

I’m explaining my situation to let you know that if I can do it (and I’m not an elite runner) you can too. If I can handle hills, you have the physical and mental strength to do so as well.

Let’s directly address the client’s question now. When I approach a hill, I naturally tend to look at the top when I get to the base then I tend to focus just a few feet ahead. I look at the top when I approach to see how long and steep it is. No reason for it other than natural curiosity. What the hill (bad pun) am I getting myself into? I then concentrate on the moment, hence looking only a few feet ahead. In that moment, I’m focused on my form and stride. My stride and yours should shorten. It makes the uphill run much easier to handle.  I concentrate on making sure my arms are moving steadily and my breathing is consistent.

My pace naturally slows down when going up. Your pace will slow down too so will the elite runner’s pace. It’s the whole gravity thing. You want your effort to feel about the same even though you will actually be slower.

When you first incorporate hills into your runs, your effort will seem a lot harder. That’s ok. As you get used to hills, the effort won’t seem as hard. What will never change is that your legs will feel a little more stress. This is the result of working different muscles and going uphill. Again, you’re going against gravity. There will be resistance. Your quad muscles will start to burn. The more steep, the more the quads will burn. That happens to the best of runners so please don’t think it means you’re weak. You’re not! You’re normal.

What would I recommend? If you’re new to hills, find a trail or hilly street or some stairs at a local high school stadium and run up them during the course of a training run. When you turn onto that street or hop onto that trail or stadium stairs, just look a few feet ahead and concentrate on your shortened stride, arm movement and consistent breathing. Don’t worry about how long the hill is. If you do that, you might lose focus on your form and breathing. As you gain experience and confidence with hills, then you can let your eyes wander because there’ll be no way you’ll be intimidated.

If you focus in the moment, you’ll soon realize the effort is getting easier and the burning in the quads has stopped. You made it to the top! Now, the funnest part of hill running begins–going down!

Running With You,

Donald

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