Early-Season Hill Work Equals Race Day Speed

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Lance Watson gives specific hill workouts to incorporate into your early-season training plan.

For years I have been advocating hill run training to my athletes. While training in the hills is valuable all year round, it is particularly useful early in your annual preparation to gain strength and muscular endurance. Propelling your body weight upward against gravity increases the load on your muscles. It also emphasizes the drive phase of the run stride (the segment of your stride that begins when your foot is directly below your center of gravity and continues through to point at which you toe-off and your foot leaves the ground).

Another benefit of running uphill is the reduction of impact on the lower leg bones (the tibia and fibula) and ankle and knee joints compared to running on level ground. Obviously, the impact is exponentially greater when you’re running down hills, but hill sets that emphasize a hard uphill section with a gentle jog back down can mitigate this factor. That said, your muscles are not only active movers of your body but also function as shock absorbers that protect your bones and joints, so there is significant value to running downhill more aggressively, to enhancing their shock absorbing capacity, as your legs adapt to the stress.

In addition, hill training boosts muscular endurance in the calves, hamstrings and hip flexors, which contributes to strength, endurance and structural stability and prepares you for faster running as you move closer to the race season. This durability also helps you run well off the bike on tired legs.

To reap these benefits, do the following three hill sessions for six to eight weeks during your early-season training.

Classic hill reps

Perform this session once a week or once every two weeks. Run on a 4- to 8-percent incline. The grade must be reasonable and not so steep that you can’t run with rhythm. The effort should be steady, and not too intense. The idea is to build strength without working toward a race effort. Stay below your anaerobic-threshold heart rate (your AT heart rate corresponds to the pace at which you would typically run a 10K).

After a good warm-up, do 10-25 minutes of hill work, as described below.

  • Your first two to three sessions should involve shorter hills and more rest. Keep your heart rate 10-15 beats below threshold. Example: 5-15 x 1-2 minutes uphill, with 100 percent rest (one minute of rest for every one minute uphill; two minutes of rest for every two minutes uphill).
  • Over your next two to three sessions, work toward longer hills at a sustained effort. Let your heart rate rise to within five to 10 beats below AT and perform 4-8 x 3-5 minutes uphill with 75 percent rest.

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