By Warren Finke, TEAM OREGON
Do you have a love /hate relationship with hills during your runs and races. Do you find yourself out of breath, struggling, and being passed up the hills? Are you glad to get to the top so you can rest only to be passed by a runner who looks like he's wearing roller skates? How can you learn to love the hills in training and then use them to your best advantage in races? There are ways to make this happen!
Be wary of advice that changing your form can make you faster. My personal philosophy about coaching running form has its roots in my brief experience as a ski instructor. I saw Olympic Gold medalist Jean-Claude Killey prove that Austrians were wrong to enforce a strict form in skiing. Essentially, Killey and many skiers have proved that form is functional, not the other way around. Killey was fast because he found the form that worked for him. We know by both experience and research that, with enough running, your body will adapt to the most efficient form for you, and that attempts to change your form will make you less efficient.
One of the few places where most runners can improve technique is on hills. The problem on hills is not really a question of form as much as a psychological approach. Most runners view an uphill as a barrier or challenge. They charge the uphill either in an effort to get it over with or as a demonstration of their strength. This having been done, they rest on the following downhill, holding back so as not to get going too fast. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to do in order to run the hills efficiently. The key to improving your hill running is your psychological approach.
Hills are your friends. They make you stronger. They break up the monotony of the flat. But you have to learn to live with them and respect them. If you do, you will become a stronger, healthier and faster runner. Your road racing performance on hilly terrain will improve immensely and you will love hills instead of hating them.
The most important thing to learn about running hills is the notion of even effort. The goal is to expend only slightly more energy running uphill than you would when running on the flat and not to expend much less energy running downhill than running on the flat. The first thing you will have to learn to do is reverse your normal tendencies and relax and take it easy on the uphill. On the downhill you must let yourself go (even push a little). The goal is to reach the top of the hill feeling good and then to let the hill work for you going down - even effort.
Maintaining leg motion or cadence is a very important aspect of even effort. When you are running a large percentage of the blood pumped through your leg muscles is pumped by the motion of the muscles themselves. Slowing this cadence means less oxygen will be delivered to your muscles. You should attempt to maintain an even cadence uphill, downhill and on the flat. To accomplish this and vary your uphill and downhill speeds you will have to adjust your stride length from very short steps (up a steep hill) to very long strides (down a moderate hill). Think of the analogy of riding a bicycle on hills. If you have ever tried bicycling uphill in a high gear at a low cadence versus a low gear at a high cadence you will understand the importance of maintaining leg motion. When you run you shift gears by shortening or lengthening your stride - short steps uphill, long strides downhill.
Maintaining even effort with a H.R.M.
The best way to see the amount of effort you are using, is by training and racing with a heart rate monitor. It acts like the speedometer in your car to let you get instant feedback on your effort. When using the heart rate monitor in training let your heart rate rise 5 - 10 beats over easy training rate on the uphill and try to stay 0 Ė 5 beats under easy rate on the downhill. When racing, allow only 5 beats over racing heart rate on the uphill.
Developing good hill running form requires practice. You should practice your hill running by doing some of your training runs on hilly terrain and by doing some specific training.
This drill can be done on one of your easy training days a couple of times a month. It should be performed on a moderate hill 50 -100 yards long. A moderate hill is one that is steep enough that you might feel uncomfortable running down it but you are still able to remain in control. After warming up by running a mile or so on the flat, run three to four continuous circuits of the hill (up, turn around, down, turn around). Notice how your body feels going up and down and while making the transitions from up to down and vice versa. Do you feel like youíre working too hard, tense, awkward or out of control? Now concentrate on the following images:
Uphill: Take short quick steps (baby steps) as if riding a bicycle in low gear. Use your arms in a straight back and forward and up motion to help lift your legs. Concentrate on relaxing your upper body and particularly the back of your upper legs. Look where you are going and not down at your feet.
Downhill: Don't hold back. Go for it! Lengthen out your stride to take advantage of the hill. Land on the balls of your feet with your knees bent. Let your arms swing to the sides and across your body to help keep your balance and to rotate your hips to improve stride length. Concentrate on using the muscles in the backs of your legs to push you forward. Remember, you can go a lot faster than you think and still be under control.
Transitions: Strive to make a smooth but immediate transition in your form and stride length as you go from uphill to downhill or as the slope changes. Anticipate the changes in terrain and change your form and stride length accordingly. Maintain your cadence.
Now run several circuits of the hill using these images and see how your hill running improves.
Attacking the uphill: A quick ticket to oxygen debt. Hill races are rarely won by the person who is the fastest at the bottom. You must concentrate on relaxing and metering out your energy over the hill. Many hills are steepest at the bottom and flatten out near the top. A well run hill has you picking it up at the top and into the downhill transition.
Over striding uphill: Remember that the muscles of the legs are major pumps for the blood supply of oxygen and fuel while running. A short quick stride helps supply more fuel and oxygen than a long slow & one uphill. This is the same reason that it is more efficient to use low gears and a fast cadence when riding a bicycle uphill rather than high gears and a slow cadence.
Looking at your feet: Maintain your posture uphill and downhill by looking into the distance. Hunching over or looking at your feet will tense up your muscles and hinder your breathing and balance, (not to mention exposing yourself to collisions with solid objects).
Resting or holding back on the downhill: If you do not accelerate on the downhill, you will lose the opportunity to get something for nothing. If you donít believe this, try running downhill with a pulse rate monitor and notice how much faster you can run at the same pulse rate than on the flat. A sure sign that you are holding back is the sound of "plopping" from your feet as you run downhill. Work on increasing stride length and using your arm swing for balance.
Not thinking ahead: Look ahead for variations in the slope up or down and adapt to them immediately. If you have to wait until you are tying up from lactic acid uphill or hearing the "plopping feet" downhill to change your form, itís too late and you have already wasted energy.
Repeat the drill concentrating on the images and performing the running circuits until you can bring up the images as you run (i.e. picture yourself running easily and relaxed uphill while you are actually doing it).