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Hills Are Not Evil: Exact Steps on How to Conquer Your Running Nemesis on Race Day

31 October

Fall Colors - country road

People race for lots of different reasons, but they all face the same conditions, course and competition. Some runners just checking off their bucket list, others are raising money for charity, some are looking to set a personal best. Regardless of why you are at the starting line, you share a common goal with everyone around you — make it to the finish line. This is our best guidance on how to conquer the hills on race day. If you have some advice, please feel free to leave a note in the comments or to post on our facebook page:

Are Hills Truly Evil?

I am going to have to go with no on this one, no matter how steep or late in the race the hill might be. After all, that hill was formed long before road racing was popular!

Hills also slow the race, helping to forge a shared misery amongst the runners. There’s something about slogging up a massive hill at 4 miles an hour, cursing gravity, that brings out the nice in everyone.

If you want to get into the blame game, you can direct some choice words towards the race organizers who charted this particular course. Or whoever got you to sign up. Of course, you might have only yourself to blame…

Why I, Your Coach, Love Hills

Hills are speedwork in disguise, as they create a simple way for you run run under additional stress at a normal speed. We have exaggerated arm swing, higher knees and improved hip drive, as well as great activation of the glutes. What more could you ask for?

Besides, some folks when they run fast end up running kind of crazy. (Note: If you are worried that might be you, here is a video to help you sort it out!)

So hills are a great training opportunity for runners of all ability levels, but note that I am really focused on running UP the hills (like in this video: Hill Running Drill); as running DOWNHILL can bring increased impact and poor form.

On race day, hills are an opportunity to outperform the competition. Few runners know how to pace a hill, and the result is that even very fit runners can be reduced to walking significant portions of a race. This opens the door for smarter runners, like you, to get to the finishline first!

But even if you don’t follow the hill running guidance below, at least knowing that I love hills means you have at least someone other than yourself to blame for your mid-race suffering. You’re welcome.

Phase One: The Approach, or How To Grade A Hill

This first step to running a hill properly is to identify that you are, in fact, about to run a hill. This means heads up running, with an awareness of what’s about to happen. If you want bonus points, you might even look at a map of the course ahead of time (although not all event maps display accurate elevation).

When you see that hill, you need to determine how you will get up it (becuase you will).

First you want to consider the pitch or grade of the hill — the steeper the hill, the slower you will run it. Is it a slight roller or a false flat, or is it a massive wall? You’ll have your own assessment, given how you feel at that time of the race, but it’s also help to look at how the other runners are doing. If most are running, it’s probably not that bad. If you see grown men on the side of the road openly sobbing, well, you get the idea.

Side Note: Most folks don’t identify hills on a given race course in training or driving the course, but race day will bring out the elevation!

Second, you want to consider how long it will take you to run that hill. The damage isn’t necessarily the severity of the hill, it’s the fact that it will take you a a fixed amount of time to overcome it. Running one minute at 5k effort in the middle of your marathon probably doesn’t seem that bad. But on a hill, that same distance could take you upwards of three minutes to run (and another three minutes to recover from!). This effort will most certainly put you in a situation where you are unable to run to your true fitness potential.

Phase Two: The Body

There’s not a great deal of time between assessment and action. You only have a few short minutes to adjust your pacing and effort to ensure this hill is more of a nuisance than a legitimate threat to your race.

Effort Rules: Entering the hill, your goal is to run the same effort even as your speed begins to drop. The effort required to run 9-minute per mile pace on the flats might yield a 10-minute or 10:30 pace per mile on a hill. Resist the urge to focus on your speed at this time; you still have the downhill that willl compensate for this slowing, not to mention being able to run the rest of your race as you planned (vs walking portions of it at a 20-minute per mile pace).

Take Baby Steps: Use the hill as an opprotunity to shorten your stride and recalibrate your cadence and overall running form. Think high hands and quick feet; use these skills to roll over a hill vs trying to conquer it with sheer effort or longer strides, both of which will fail you later in the day when you need that energy.

Constantly Assess: What seemed like a good effort for the hill might suddenly turn out to be too much; or perhaps you even started too conservatively. Whatever the reason, don’t get stuck in a rut — you can adjust. The experienced runner leverages the nuances in terrain to maintain momentum and find a few seconds here or there that other runners might gloss over.

Phase Three: The Summit & Aftermath

As you approach the peak of the hill, try to identify a marker as your target. Some hills don’t end, or at least they don’t end where you would expect them to (false summit anyone?). Avoid disappoinment by actively selecting your “run target” — the part of the hill that you will absolutely run to — and feel free to adjust as you get closer. You might choose the red mailbox early on, but then later shift it to the second manhole cover and eventually the beat up Winnebago. The point here is that you are in charge.

Cresting the summit brings instant gratification (You did it!!!), but you can’t just close your eyes and start patting yourself on the back just yet. You will mostly likely need to transition quickly to downhill running as you begin the process of recovering from the climb. You will want to regain your normal stride by gradually opening up your gait — just be sure not to over-extend and start slapping your way down the pavement.

In extreme cases, it might be worthwhile to walk for a brief period of time (10 seconds, 30 steps) to help your heart rate drop and to regain your bearings on the next section of the race.

Once you are back on level ground, assuming you have paced yourself well, you should be able to resume your normal pacing. In many cases, hills can give you just enough variety to keep you engaged and running well…sometimes even better than a repetitive flat course.

photo by: joiseyshowaa

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