One of the most famous proponents of hill training is Olympic coach Arthur Lydiard. His hill circuit training requires the athlete to bound (focus on horizontal motion) or leap (focus on vertical motion) up the hill. Lydiard concentrated a great deal on hill running form to promote efficiency. Driving the knees, for example, is one aspect on which to focus--as well as toeing-off and slapping the heel to the buttocks.
When done at a slower pace, a runner can focus more on technique and may actually feel more soreness than they expect from drill-like repeats. Consider a weight routine in which you are lifting and lowering the weight more slowly--it hurts more. Gravity is our resistance on the hills.
The first cycle of hill workouts in Lydiard's ideal season is geared towards strength. It consists of 6-8 repeats on a 1,000-meter moderate incline. As the season progresses and the focus changes to explosive speed, the repeats increase to 8-10 and the length of the hill shrinks to 275 meters. The stride down the hill is always fast but in control.
Before the next hill repeat, Lydiard had his runners run about 250 meters at between 800 and 1,600 pace. For Lydiard, who primarily trained track athletes, hill workouts focused on building mileage after the base phase. However, incorporating hills throughout the season proves an effective way to improve efficiency without peaking too early.
According to Stacy Osborne, an avid runner and podiatrist in the Cincinnati area, many of us don't address our biomechanics, one of the most controllable aspects of our training and keys to improvement. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the leg on the ground that's primarily responsible for generating the power for forward velocity.
Rather, it's the non-weight-bearing leg--the leg in the swing phase--that generates momentum by creating a tug on the runner's center of gravity as it swings forward. The foot on the ground acts as a lever, and the runner is thus propelled forward. Those muscles responsible for this power stroke, the key hip flexors, are the illiacus, psoas major and psoas minor. These are also some of the most important muscles for cyclists, recruited during the pulling-up phase.
One of the best ways to strengthen those hip flexors and improve the power of our swing phase is with hill repeats. As we gain strength, our chances of getting injured are diminished, and we gain mental confidence. Once you've done 15 X 2:00 of a steep hill, 1:00 climbing a similar incline in a race will look like a mole hill. This is because running hills improves speed.
Your effort increases as you run up a hill, even if you reduce your pace. So, in a race, the best way to run a hill is to maintain effort and forget about pace while on the hill--even effort is the surest route to a faster time. Trying to maintain pace on the hill is like surging and varying the body's perceived effort, which will only tire you prematurely in the long run.
How else can you build tireless, feisty, power strokes using hill workouts? One way to maintain volume is to do hill fartleks (Swedish for "speed play"). Pick a course with hills and focus on surging up the hills. If you're doing strict hill repeats, try varying the pace. For example, if you are doing four sets of three hills, do the first at 5k pace and the second at 10k pace.
Focus on slow and exaggerated form on the third hill. Instead of varying the pace at which you run, you can vary the hill lengths themselves. If you are working in a group, pair up and run them like a relay such that your rest depends on how long it takes your partner to get up and down the hill.
Should you decide to run hills by time (i.e. 90 seconds on five hills), mark how far you get each time with a rock or little flag. Try to reach or beat that landmark each repeat. It is also good practice to try to surge over and past the crest of the hill.
The mental factor determines how well we run on hills. Many of us see hill repeats as an opportunity to practice conquering or attacking the hill. One tactic is to approach the hill as a friend rather than foe.
Another helpful piece of imagery is to imagine strings attached to your hands--and the string ends tied to a point at the top of the hill. As you pump your arms and thrust your elbows behind you, imagine the strings providing you leverage to pull yourself up more easily. You don't have to turn your mind off to escape negative, self-defeating talk; instead, recruit your mind to help you.
As runners, triathletes need to recognize the importance of strengthening our hip flexor muscles. Strong flexors help us maintain a grueling pace, attack a hill, kick with speed on the flats, and protect our bodies from injury. They are an integral piece of training year-round and, with variation, can make us more efficient runners and cyclists. Go ahead, be king of the hill!
Amanda McCracken is a USAT Level I certified coach. She can be reached for personal coaching at firstname.lastname@example.org or D3 Multisport, Inc.