"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Whys of Hill Running (part 1 of 3)

Anyone who's been reading this blog knows I do a lot of running on hills, but I realize that I've never really addressed why. The simple answer: unless racing on a track, there's going to be hills and that means that it's a good idea to know how to run them. I'd always been an expert at running downhill in short road races, so I was shocked to find that I'm execrable at it on trails. When I first wondered (aloud) why that was, people tended to respond that trail races simply have more, longer and steeper hills; it took some time for me to see that the real problem was one of technique: one can "freewheel" down hills on roads because the ground is solid, but on trails, the ground shifts - it's soft, uneven, full of obstacles and the slope changes erratically. Freewheeling on trails leads to falling. One has to relearn how to run hills on trails.

Most competitive runners end up choosing some "expert" to follow, whether or not that expert knows what they're talking about. If you watch runners training on a hill, you can see whose plan they follow. The Lydiard pack do odd bounding and skipping exercises on the hills, exaggerating one component of proper form at a time. Those who just bought Hudson's book sprint uphill for exactly 15 seconds. Daniels' followers do all their uphill running on a treadmill, as he claims downhills do nothing but increase the risk of injury. None of this is irrational, but one needs to understand the why's and not just blindly follow a plan.

Physically, running against the pull of gravity should be the same as accelerating on level ground, though the musculature is being used differently. Wearing a heart rate monitor while running on a hill will show that one's heart rate tends to fall during the downhills, no matter how fast one runs (if one accelerates or has to make odd motions to keep balance, this doesn't hold); the heart actually measures work in its classical definition - I know this doesn't mean anything to most people, but I find it interesting.

Running hills can substitute for interval workouts and that's one reason people do them. Interval workouts are designed to get one's heart and lungs working at or near maximum and it takes time for one to go from resting to all-out. On a hill, that lag time is shortened. Also, on an uphill, there's decreased landing shock to the joints and muscles, so it's good for those coming back from injuries or prone to them. The downside is that every hill is different and it's hard to evaluate progress; on a track, you can know exactly how one workout compares to another.

Running hills is resistance training and thus has similarities to weight lifting. Many runners incorporate weight lifting as a way to improve their ability to run hills, but I prefer the specificity of actually running hills. In weight lifting, each rep is the same, whereas every step of a hill can be different, requiring balance and agility as well as strength and endurance.

[I may add to this post. The next one should be about technique and the third about specific hill workouts and why I do them.]


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Respectfully submitted for consideration as the soundtrack for these post.

I personally am more of a "Why Don't We Do It in The Road"-type runner

Mitch R. said...

I ran hill repeats for 10+ years to toughen up the hips for the long downhills found out West.

This first hill workout of the year at Hyland always made me limp around for 3-4 days, no mater how easy I ran them. With time, the body develops a good resistance to the pounding.

SteveQ said...

G, I prefer Kate Bush's "Runnin' Up That Hill (to Make a Deal With God)" and PIL's "Rise," but "Why Don't We..." has been in my mind on the trails - as has "long and Winding Road" on roads.