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Going uphill can solve just about any problem, Tim DeBoom writes.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
With arms locked behind his back, as if skating toward one of his five Olympic gold medals, Eric Heiden bounded up and then ran back down the side of a mountain. That was it: a few fleeting seconds of footage in the middle of a video montage that showed him working on his craft. It happened to be set to one of my favorite songs, and perhaps that’s why it caught my attention.
Twenty years ago, during the infancy of my triathlon career, I happened to watch this 30-minute documentary on Eric Heiden. This one brief scene, a few seconds at most, made an impression on me—having the greatest and most lasting influence on my training philosophy.
The short scene highlighted part of his brutal training regimen prior to his historic 1980 Olympic medal run. A workout of searing one-legged leaps up and down—and up and down—the same hill. I knew about Heiden’s renowned high-repetition weight exercises and his famous Heiden Hops (one-legged hops back and forth in the gym), but his mountain “runs” were new to me and definitely not typical training for speed skating.
Most likely, it was just another workout for him. But for me, as I watched Heiden do his “bounds” up a mountain and then pound his legs back down, the phrase “vertical fitness” burst into my mind.
There were no triathlon coaches in 1992. I was on my own. Applying my knowledge from years of competitive swimming to cycling and running could only take me so far. I needed to adapt, and I looked for inspiration from any sport and any athlete. When I watched Eric punish himself on that mountain, I knew that vertical fitness was the answer. This philosophy has guided me ever since.
Vertical fitness. Simple. Powerful. Anything worth doing can be even more effective uphill (and down). Training on the flats prepares you for the flats. But training on the hills prepares you for everything.
People think I moved to Colorado for the altitude training benefits, but the true draw was to the mountains themselves.
Those mountain roads and trails, and the fitness I built on them, served me well during my professional career. I know several other Ironman world champions who also took advantage of the punishing Switzerland trail and the climb to the sky in Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road just up the mountain from Boulder, Colo. Both routes epitomize the philosophy of vertical fitness.
The strength and endurance components that vertical fitness training promised were the original intentions. Over the years, however, I’ve realized there are many more benefits from the relentless ascents and descents.
Long climbs on the bike have the added reward of improving your pedal stroke, thus increasing efficiency on the flats too. Running uphill also serves to increase your efficiency. It’s a great platform to help build the perfect running form. Hard hill repeats also take the pounding out of hard intervals on the track. I gave up track intervals near the beginning of my professional career because I kept getting injured, and I realized that I was getting more “bang for the buck” doing uphill efforts anyway.
Descending also offers important benefits to any training program. Cycling down twisty mountain roads hones your handling skills and allows you to increase your cadence while pushing a big gear. For the run, nothing simulates the final miles of an Ironman better than pounding your legs down brutal hills—if the trail is rocky and full of roots, even better. It forces you to focus on what you’re doing even when you’re tired.
Another unorthodox benefit of vertical fitness is the healing properties of the hills. I have had my fair share of injuries over the years, both overuse and traumatic. The overuse injuries always seem to be caused by a muscle weakness somewhere in my body. Almost every time, a strenuous hike wakes up those muscles. It’s really that simple. When it’s a traumatic injury, and I wonder if it’s healed, I head for a hike in the hills to tell me when I’m really ready to start pushing things again.
Now that my professional days are over, I still find myself going “vertical” on a daily basis. What’s amazing is that the mountain still surprises me after all these years. It’s where I make many of my important decisions, write most of these columns, and find peace from any stress that comes my way. I’ve always thought that if I write a book, I would title it All Life’s Problems are Solved Above Tree Line.
Tim DeBoom is a two-time winner of the Ironman World Championship and the last American to win in Kona.