Power Up, Over, and Down Any Incline

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 Alex Hutchinson

Check out these tips to help you kill the hills.

Australian miler Herb Elliott’s gut-churning sand dune workouts prior to his 1960 Olympic gold helped establish hill training as critical to every serious training plan. But simply sprinting up and down inclines isn’t a winning strategy, as Australian researchers discovered. The experts wired up a group of runners to monitor their speed, oxygen consumption, heart rate, and stride length, then sent them out for a six-mile time trial over a hilly course. This field trial captured how runners varied their pace and effort over real-world, hilly terrain and found that they ascended too fast and took more than a minute to recover. The results revealed valuable lessons.

On the Way Up

The most efficient way to run a flat course is to keep an even pace. On hills, you must maintain an even effort–one that’s equivalent to your effort on flats, and sustainable the whole way up–or risk burning energy that you can’t regain later on. Most of the runners in the study did just that: went too fast on climbs, causing their breathing and heart rate to spike as if they were sprinting.

Once or twice a week, practice running long hills to develop your ability to lock into a sustainable pace. Aim for ascents that take 10 minutes or longer. Mimic the effort you would expend on a flat run, no matter how slow it feels. Monitor it by listening to your breathing; if it gets noticeably heavier, ease up.

Cresting the Top

After reaching the top of a hill, the runners took an average of 78 seconds before they sped up to resume their normal pace. That’s partly because they were going too fast up the hill and partly because the hills broke their stride rhythm by shortening it. It’s human nature to maintain that shorter stride until you’ve recovered, and it takes a conscious effort to snap out of it.

Use “long strides” as a cue to open up your stride and accelerate. To practice making this transition–especially when you’re tired–find a hill that takes about 45 seconds to climb. Run hard to the top, then lengthen your stride and accelerate for 15 seconds to ingrain the quick transition. Jog down for recovery. Repeat six to 10 times.

Coming Down

Some people are better at downhills than others. While all the runners slowed on uphills by a similar amount–an average of 23 percent–they sped up on the way down by five to 25 percent. If you don’t practice, you’ll end up braking on descents simply because you’re not used to the pounding.

Good form is essential to using gravity to your advantage. After a regular run, do four to six relaxed 100-meter strides down a gentle slope; progress over time to a steeper decline. Keep your arms wide and low for balance, shorten your stride, and focus on quick turnover. Monitor your breathing: If it gets quieter and slower, you can push harder without any penalty.


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