Thursday, December 2, 2010

Looking for speed? Maybe hills can help...

Running Uphill
This is targeted mainly at relative beginners to systematic training. People who may be doing regular aerobic base, interval, and threshold running, but who haven't yet tried hill training in any form. For them, I highlight some fairly structured hill training concepts, and then also note that this kind of structure, while helpful for some who prefer a structured program, is not an absolute necessity. Unstructured high-intensity hill running may be just as effective, and combining structured workouts with unstructured workouts might even be the best approach for some.

I've talked about hill training before, but I'll quickly summarize what I think are the key specifics again here, knowing that others may define things differently or apply different terminology here and there. Fortunately, I think most of the differences semantic, so they don't really concern me very much. Some of the differences also sort of down matter, because there is nothing magic about the specifics I provide here. These are just the specifics I have adopted because I was convinced by what a few others have written on the topic, and because I have tried these things now with some success. I think the key thing is that you can get more benefit from training on hills, than just running them aerobically.

So, I obviously distinguish hill training from hill running in some ways, although both can be a valuable part of a training regimen. Still, I think it's true that you can get additional benefits from focused, high intensity interval training or repeats run on suitable hills, or from running Fartlek intervals on hills, that simply running aerobically on a hilly route are unlikely to provide efficiently.

Intervals vs. Repeats vs. Sprints
Because people can be pretty obsessive about how the terms "Interval," "Repeat," and "Sprint" are defined, I want to establish up-front how I operationally define these things.

Although many simplified training systems don't distinguish repeats from any other type of interval, in many of the more advanced training systems they are considered different animals. Whereas "intervals" are short to middle-distance runs at about around 10-20 seconds faster than 5K race pace (about 90-93% of maximum sustainable effort) in some training systems, "repeats" are intervals that are run 20-40 seconds faster than 5K race pace (say, about 95-98% of maximum sustainable effort). For regular interval training, runners should usually try to run very easy during the rest/recovery interval, but when running repeats, the runner's exertion is usually too high to manage this, so walking and even standing for a bit is the rest/recovery method of choice.

Hill repeats are just repeats (95-98% of maximum sustainable effort) that are run on hills. Although I have seen/heard many people call them hill sprints, I distinguish the two. For me, hill sprints are very short and are a 98-100% unsustainable effort. This is a sprint, not a distance run. You are trying for good leg speed, full extension, and maximum push off. People run sprints with a different form and gait than they run distances, and you run these how you would run a 100 m race, not how you would run a 1 mile race. It's a very anaerobic effort, so you cannot maintain it for long. Indeed, you should only maintain a hill sprint for about 8-12 seconds, and then your rest intervals between them should be complete, even sitting down or doing some mild stretching to stay loose, and last at least 2-3 minutes.

Ok, so such specific definitions may seem like splitting hairs, but theoretically, the distinctions are important, because the intensity of the effort for each of these different types of training is effective as better isolating specific key aspects of our physiology that are important in optimizing running performance. So, do you need to concern yourself with the details? Hell no. Can the concepts be helpful in understanding why you do the kinds of training you do (if you care to understand)? Hell yes. So, it's to you whether you want to read any further.

Hill Repeats in Detail
For hill repeats, you want a hill that is challenging, but not so steep that you can't maintain a gait that resembled your normal gait on flat ground. I find that to be a hill with a slope of between a 5-10%. That is, a hill that rises about 5-10 feet per 100 ft. of uphill travel. The hill I typically do repeats on is about an 8%, relatively steady incline.

Because hill repeats are difficult to run, it's a good idea to keep them relatively short. 200-400m, maybe 600m tops, although I'm sure there are elite runners that do upwards of 800-1000 meter hill repeats. I'm not an elite runner, so I keep it at what I can manage.

Uphill and downhill repeats. My repeats are run in both uphill and downhill directions, like a circuit. Usually I run 400m hard uphill, walk around for a sufficient rest period, then I run back down the hill, concentrating on staying low, smooth, and fast. Running uphill at this intensity really puts the hurt on the slow-twitch muscle fibers and also recruits the fast-twitch fibers to some degree. These are the fibers specialized for endurance activities. Hill repeats is like a strength workout for them. It also pushes you past threshold very quickly, so it is also good training for improving aerobic capacity.

Running downhill repeats is not the greatest workout to improve aerobic capacity, but it has some strength and running form benefits that are difficult to get from other types of running. First, running downhill causes what are called concentric contractions, particularly in the quadriceps muscles, in which the muscle must contract while simultaneously extending in order to control forward momentum. This type of contraction is what makes downhill running more tiring and difficult than runner's expect, and if you're not used to it, also contributes to delayed onset muscle soreness following downhill runs.

Hill Sprints in Detail
Hill sprints should be done on a higher grade, to create extra resistance when you extend your hip behind you, and push off forcefully with your quad muscles and calves, but the incline should not be so steep that you can't maintain rapid turnover.  For most people, this will be a grade of between 10 and 15%, give or take a little. That is, 10-15 ft. of elevation gain per 100 feet of travel.

Being a very forceful effort, hill sprints involve much more effort from the stronger, fast-twitch muscle fibers than hill repeats, and thus provides some real brute force strength benefits for the legs that can be useful both for the final kick to make ascending steep hills easier. Short sprints up a relatively steep hill like this are an effective way to build the kind of strength you need to be a more powerful all around runner, and it also also does it's part to increase lactate threshold and produces some improvements in aerobic capacity.

Whereas hill repeats can comprise an entire workout, hill sprints are usually added into a workout. Runners might do them at the end of an easy run, or in the middle of a run, if an opportune hill exists along a running route. It's a good idea to be adequately warmed up before charging up the hills.

Fartlek on Hills
A runner who would like to mix it up, or who doesn't like structured interval training, can always get the above benefits by turning hills into hard-run Fartlek intervals on a normal hilly running route. If done regularly, and with enough intensity, there is no reason a hilly Fartlek run every week or two wouldn't be sufficient to get the fully benefit of running hills, but I think it's probably more interesting for most people to alternate between a structured hill workouts and hilly Fartlek runs from week to week, or even to combine a Hill Repeat or a Hill Sprint workout each week with a run in which some uphill and downhill Fartlek intervals are included. Why not? Whatever keeps it interesting, right?

Precautionary Statement - EASE INTO HILL TRAINING
It's wise not to rush into higher intensity workouts, or workouts that place much greater stress on bones and soft tissues that aren't ready for it. Running uphill tends to encourage for forefoot strike, for example, and to place greater stress of the calf and Achilles tendon, and also on the plantar fascia. So, if you have been running on flat ground, and not regularly doing much speed work, and particularly if you are heel striking or midfoot striking runner, you should probably start out with only one to three Hill Repeats or Hill Sprints, and also keep your intensity a little lower the first couple of hill training sessions. And once your intensity is comfortably up (say the third week of hill training), then start increasing the number of repeats and/or sprints you run in each workout, gradually.

Also, stop immediately if you sense any cramping or unusual ache or pain.

Conclusion
I once read that Arthur Lydiard (famous New Zealand running coach) claimed that within 4-6 weeks of adding a weekly hill training, runners often see a marked improvement in their typical aerobic paces, sometimes upwards of a 30 second improvement per mile. I was skeptical of this claim, but after 8 weeks, it appears as though that's about how much my aerobic training paces have improved, and this improvement has been accompanied by some significant gains in my 5K and 10K times as well. So, color me impressed.

One drawback is that people can injure themselves more easily with hill training if they start into it too quickly, particularly with the hill sprints. So, if you want to start doing these kinds of hill workouts, and have largely avoided hills previously, I'd integrate these things into your routine gradually, and also initially, you may want to build a little extra recovery into the schedule following these high-intensity hill workouts. You don't want to screw up your training by tearing a calf muscle, or worse, so give your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints a chance to adapt and strengthen by proceeding rationally.

If you don't already do some form of high-intensity hill training, and you think you might have something to gain from it, I recommend giving it a try. Ease into it, and then do it consistently for a couple of months. I think the results may surprise you.

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