Chasing 42

Life, the Universe, & Running

Sneaking Up On Hills

Of all of the lessons I learned from my most recent ultramarathon experience, the most significant was the importance of hill work for trail running. Without question, the trail races I’ve run have included far more significant elevation change than any of the road races I’ve tackled. This is not to say that hill work is not important for road races, because it certainly is, but it seems much easier to avoid hilly courses when you are looking at all road races! Despite my significant training for Surf the Murph, my lack of preparation for the hilly course proved to be a major factor in my overall experience. Granted, I thought I was familiar with the area because I grew up there, and I clearly blocked out the actual terrain from my mind, but had I done more hill work, I would have seen even better results.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for 6000 feet of elevation!

What’s probably most ironic about my hilly experience is the fact that I thought I had done more hill work than in past training cycles. In looking back at my elevation changes, I wasn’t wrong, but I also wasn’t nearly as intentional about the hill work as I could have been. Arguably, this is no easy task in a state like Iowa, where the entire central region is about as flat as can be, and actual trails are few and far between. However, there are enough hills to provide me with a challenge to negate any excuses I might come up with during my run. Ultimately, all it will take is a bit more planning on my part, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.

I’ve actually been thinking more about speed lately, and am toying with the idea of picking an early spring marathon I can use to break the 4-hour barrier for the first time. This will involve some more significant speed work over the winter months, which I have traditionally avoided. However, being more intentional with my hill work is going to help me reach my goal as well. The benefits of hill work for running are rather significant and well proven, and I hope to reap all of them. In addition to more generally building strength and speed, various running sources have found that hill work has the following more specific perks:

Physiologically speaking, hill running…
1) Increases your aerobic capacity that enables you to use less oxygen at increasingly longer distances.
2) Improves your running economy that enables you to use less oxygen to run at a faster pace.
3) Increases your stamina that enables you to run farther at a given pace.
4) Builds strength in your gluteals (buttock), quadriceps (front of thigh), gastrocnemius (upper calf), and soleus (lower calf) muscles.

Biomechanically speaking, hill running…
1) Improves your stride length (from uphill running) and your stride frequency (from downhill running).
2) Increases your ankle flexion that enables you to “pop” off the ground more quickly, so that you can spend less time on the ground and more time in the air.
3) Teaches you how to run relaxed.

All of these results make it a no-brainer that I would work more intentionally on hitting the hills. One of the struggles folks have with hill-work, both going up and coming down, is maintaining an effective stride and avoiding the “braking effect” that can cause additional stress on your knees. The trick for me seems to be shortening my stride, paying attention to my posture, and focusing on a mid-foot strike as I go uphill, and then letting the hill do more of the work downhill while keeping my feet and center of gravity under me on the way down (thus avoiding a more forceable foot strike). My stride inevitably lengthens on the way down, and that is ok. I’ve also experimented with running up hill with my feet at a 45-degree angle, while maintaining a mid-foot strike. This has the added bonus of using different leg muscles, which are fresher and ready for the task. This works much better on smooth surfaces than on trails, but is still a viable option. Ultimately the combination of good technique and a structured plan is hopefully gong to pay off!

I’ll be traveling to the Phoenix area over the holidays, and looking forward to hitting the area trails, elevation and all! Hopefully, with more focus, I’ll be ready for them 🙂

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5 thoughts on “Sneaking Up On Hills

  1. Hey Adam, you nailed it with the comment that you need to be “intentional” about hill training. Hill training should be HARD. It made more difference to my performance improvements than any other change to my training regimen. I have not found material on how stairs compare to hills. I prefer the stairs because my stride length is forced, and when running every-other, I get the benefits of lunges too. Off-season is a great time to start integrating hills/stairs! I look forward to hearing about the hills of IA!

  2. I am looking at running this as my FIRST 50k in October. Any other tips specific to this race? Thanks!

    • Congrats! It’s definitely a more technical trail race than I was anticipating, so I’d try and train on trails as much as you can. Regular hill work, and even additional strength-training/ cross-training would definitely help as well. The trail was pretty dry this past year, but if it ends up being a wet fall, the race will definitely get a lot more challenging as well. Do you live in the area? If so, you may even consider getting out there and running portions of the course. I’m not as familiar with other trails in the area, but nothing beats becoming familiar with the course. Hope that helps- if you have other questions, don’t hesitate to let me know!

      • Thanks for the quick reply. That is pretty much what I was planning. Hills, stairs, strength, strength, strength! I live in Milwaukee,WI so we have some good options for trail running around the Kettle Morine and out at the Ice Age Trail so I hope those will suffice. Also printed the STM elevation chart to hang in my cube as motivation! Thanks again I will DEFINITELY let you know if I have more ? the closer it gets!!!

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