My Favorite Landform

19 Jul

Jack Handy once told me that, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Not lifting weights doesn’t kill you. Therefore, not lifting weights makes you stronger.” As someone who avoids weight rooms like the plague and despises squats, burpees, and leg presses, I love that advice. So, I flee from those large artificially lit rooms full of strange men grunting, wildly moving weights, the constant thumping and whirring of people on treadmills and fans circulating their sweat, and I run to the hills.

It’s easy to follow me. As soon as you hear a teenage kid with a giant RaceTrac coke hanging out a truck, yelling, and mistaking you for some guy named Forrest, then you know you’re headed the right direction. You can find short abrupt hills, long steep hills, short gradual hills, hills that wind around for miles, soft sandy hills, rocky uneven hills, Mississippi mole hills, Montana’s mountains, and undulating hill sections that include outrageous climbs, gradual inclines, flat reprieves and nice rolling topography. There aren’t necessarily any rules, no must haves or precise measurements, just nice simple running on something other than a track.

What they help:

If nothing else, practicing hills alleviates that feeling in a race where you round a turn at the bottom a giant elevation change and think “Oh snap! I’m gonna die!” Furthermore, while hill training can have wildly different forms, all of them are going to train your hip flexors to lift with more energy, encourage your glutes and calves to push off with more force, and increase your cardiovascular capabilities. The pronounced toe off, exaggerated arm swing, and driving knee lift necessary to carry you up an incline can tax your body just as much as any weight room session and do it in a fashion that many argue is much more natural, specific, and useful to the runner. In other words, hill training will force your body to become more efficient and build better running form. Hills will facilitate both speed and strength training in a way that reduces the amount of pounding on your legs and decrease risk of injury. Also, don’t just think about the uphills. Going downhill is a huge help as well. When you get sore after a hilly run, the main reason is often actually because of the downhills. Our muscles are great at contracting and generating force, but it is a little trickier to allow a muscle to lengthen under an extreme amount of force. That flexibility is exactly what we need to train when running downhill. As you descend, you tend to land with a fair amount of force, and, unless you have perfect form, your quads act as a break. It will flex to slow you down, relax a bit, flex, relax, etc. until you finally toe off at the end of the stride. That movement of course, works your quadriceps very hard and also tends to cause scores of tiny micro-tears in your muscles that can take a day or two to repair. However, it is that process of tearing and rebuilding that fortifies your body. All of that is just to say, either way you do them, hills make you stronger.

Where they take you:

As a rule, short hills of any repeat under three minutes will do more for increasing your Vo2 max (anaerobic capabilities and processing of oxygen), while repeats longer than that or mid-run hills will mainly improve your lactate threshold (your ability to get rid of lactic acid).

Short hills are meant to be run fast. You can design your own workout of say 2 sets of 10 repeats, tack a few on at the end of another workout altogether, or just add a few to the end of a normal run once or twice a week. Keep them less than 200 meters (even just 10 seconds of hill works well), pick the slightly steeper hills, and make sure that your jog back to the start gives you enough time to catch your breath. Also, as with any workout, take a few minutes of jogging to warm up before you start the hard stuff and do the same for a cool down. You will quickly notice how much these shorter hills in particular require of your abs, lower back, hamstrings, and core muscles in general and understand why they develop your explosive fast twitched muscles. You’ll also find that they’re great for speed training while still building up your mileage.

Long Hills are great for overall strength and stamina in a slightly different way. They still work your core, but serve as a sort of replacement for the mid-range (600-1200 meter) repeats you may do on the track once your big race nears. Try to run these hills at about 5k or 10k race pace and back off to about 75 percent of that pace while running back down the hill. The point here is to keep going. Don’t stop. You will naturally catch your breath by the time you reach the bottom of the hill and the continuous nature of the workout does wonders for your aerobic system, mental strength, and ensures that you don’t fall apart at your next race’s final miles or mid-route hill.

How it looks:

You can find all sorts of advice an instruction on perfect form and what you should and shouldn’t do when it comes to running. But really, we all know that you just get up, put one foot in front of the other, and move as quickly as you can. The human body is an amazing machine and is excellent at searching out its own best way of accomplishing the tasks set before it. However, if you are one of those interested in aiding that development, then there are a few basic tips. When you encounter a hill during a normal run or race, maintain the same effort level. In doing this, your pace will decrease slightly as you go up the hills, accordion back out to its normal cadence as you crest the incline, and you will conserve much more energy than those who feel like they have something to prove to gravity. Also, it is good to remember that just a little focus on form can go a long way when it comes to hills. Run tall. By this, I mean that you want to keep you center of mass underneath you at all times. If you keep your hips tall, you will be less likely to run hunched over and will consequently breath much easier. Also, this practice helps keep your ankles, hips, and shoulders in a straight and erect line upon toe-off. Picture a vertical plank. Now, tilt that plank just slightly forward. If your three main pivot points (ankles, hips, shoulders) are in line like that plank, then your stride will be much more efficient. You don’t really have to focus too much on how much shorter your stride gets or how well you hold your center of mass – if you are over-striding up hill, you will know and you’ll get tired real quick.

Finally, if all else fails and there really are no hills to be found, then I pity you. But, don’t worry, stairs can work too! So, as you get ready to train and watch the upcoming Olympics, remember that previously mentioned comedian’s advice. “When Armageddon comes, it would be good to be an Olympic athlete, because running real fast and jumping over stuff could come in handy.”

Check out a video of my friends and elite runners, Josh and Sara, doing their own hill training on the way up to Lake Mary (Mammoth Lakes, CA): http://gogorunning.com/building-hill-climbing-strength/

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