Racing up hills seemed to me a preposterous notion when I began training for my first half marathon in October 2011. In the past year, I’ve learned to embrace running on an incline and have even come to enjoy it. For me, the key to success when running hills lies in the strategies.
First and foremost when I approach a hill, I tell myself in an unapologetic tone that, I got this. I’ve been up steeper hills than this one, and I’m going to kick its ass. (This is a very important step, because running is a mental sport.)
As the grade increases, I alter my stride.
This concept was something that took me a while to understand. In the early weeks of my first training schedule, I charged up the hills in order to get to the top as quickly as possible. My lungs burned, my breathing became ragged, and I wasted precious energy.
Now at the bottom of the hill, I shorten my stride by as much as 50%, depending on the steepness of the hill. I drop my center of gravity, pushing my bootie slightly down and back, so that my feet strike the pavement more near the heel than my normal, mid-strike stride. Lastly, my entire body falls into a rhythmic pattern of movement, a compact ebb and flow dance of limbs and breath. This movement usually falls in synchronization with my music, which helps tremendously.
I don’t rush up the hill. My concentration is on my stride and on my breath. I notice that when I lose control of my breath, exhaustion from the effort overcomes me. So, it’s in through the nose, longer exhalation out the mouth, rhythmic, controlled.
Near the top of the hill, just before it crests, there is always a leveling off of the incline. Usually, the change in grade is imperceptible to the eye, perhaps because the focus is on the actual top of the hill. But this small change in grade affects my legs. My feet strike the pavement at a slightly different angle and there is a rush of lactic burn along the tops of my thighs. This is the moment my concentration must persevere. Maintaining the rhythm of body and breath is crucial.
Usually, a hill crests and then descends on the other side. I used to make the mistake of running fast down the hill, in order to make up the lost time when I couldn’t maintain pace up the incline. Again, this is a bad strategy that wastes energy that I’ll need later in the course.
I’ve found that keeping my stride short at the top of the descent works best. Rather than spending energy speeding down the hill, I expend little effort, letting the decreasing slope do the work. This is my recovery time, when my muscles and lungs get a break. By mid-hill, my stride naturally lengthens to its normal pace and I feel fresh and strong for the next hill, and for the rest of the course.
I also train using hill workouts and running stadium stairs. Both work wonders in increasing VO2 max and overall strength and endurance.
Have you developed strategies for conquering those hills? Please share in the comments; I’d love to hear them!