Hills – why we love them and how to treat them
Hills are like lie detectors. You are forced to be honest about your capabilities. But at least you’ll know where you stand and if you treat them as a friend, they can serve as a very satisfying way to build confidence.
I have always enjoyed running up and down hills for their own sake. To the bemusement of my brother and sister, as a teenager, I used to take off up two slag heaps on the Town Moor in Newcastle with my dog Hamish and repeat. For no particular reason, other than I enjoyed the sensation of cresting the crown of the hill and seeing the city stretched out below. Taking short staccato strides and changing cadence takes you through the gears. And being out of breath serves as a kind of physical truth!
Fast forward a decade or three and like most runners, I now need a stronger objective to run up hills! And so I find that autumn is the best place to find a gently winding hill in your local park, or a leafy avenue to crunch the leaves. The aim is to build strength and endurance for the forthcoming year.
If you are starting from scratch, i.e. a base of low fitness or relative inactivity at the end of summer or post injury, hills are great for getting back to basics, by which I mean mindful running. Take a watch by all means and find a hill which fills a minute to two of your park run cadence (5k pace) then extend your work out to 20 minutes then 25 and 30 mins over a period of two or three months. The surface does not matter. It can be tarmac or trail but not sand or gravel which will compromise your push off phase.
You are not sprinting but you are concentrating on form and so driving your arms and pushing off with gusto as your lead leg works like a grapnel. If park run or your local 10k is your aim, you can build leg strength and good form (from the core) just by incorporating hills in to your weekly long run. But test yourself by increasing your speed up the hills. You can rest at the top if you need to. You need to teach yourself to relax or your shoulders will hunch and your torso slump, until your diaphragm feels like it has run away with itself. You should be able to judge 2/3 way through, whether you can go 5 minutes further than your previous session.
A variety of the above is Kenyan hills.
This is a tempo run up, along and down a hill, of between 300m and 1000 metres on any surface. The point is that the hills are attacked with attitude and the flat sections are maintained at a hard pace. On the downhill sections, you can slow down to recover.
Up and over hills
As spring arrives, you may be thinking of entering a mountain run or perhaps even a fell race. This requires a different type of hill, the off road type, preferably grassy and not too muddy where you get some purchase. They should be steeper than the former hills but not above 28 per cent gradient, which is better tackled at walking pace. These hills can be practiced in intervals for 20 to 40 minutes with an up and over recovery, of running down the other side. The technique to running downhill fast, is to skip or dance, leaning forward and using your arms like windmills of necessary. Place your feet at 5 to 11 upon landing and throw caution to the wind. You’ll get a surge of adrenalin. But concentrate on every footfall and study the ground ahead.
If you are training for an ultra, you will need to practice replicating the feeling of having cast iron quads, barely unable to straighten after many miles of absorbing hills. Do it over and over on a softer (but not too muddy) surface until after a couple of months or possibly even weeks, you will start to notice they are now more resilient.
If you are lucky (or maybe unlucky) enough to live in a landscape marked with combes and hills, make the most of it. Every run will involve a session within a session, so treat the hills as bite sized segments to test your form, whether your run is 10k to or 30k long.
Vertical Kilometre (This is for seasoned fell or mountain runners)
You can do this any time of the year as a real lung bursting, lactic inducing killer. You can do it on a treadmill but do it in the morning when the gym is empty, as you may get some glances coming your way! Set the gradient to maximum and fix a pace which you think you can sustain until you have reached a km in distance. As a guide, if your pace is set to 6km per hour (just above walking pace) and the gradient is at 15 (that is 15 vertical metres for every 100 meters in distance). So if you are running at 6km per hour, you’ll be running for approximately an hour to