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6 ways to hill train as a flatlander

Hill running and hill repeats mean different things to different runners.

In Colorado, “hills” can be amazing mountain climbs, hitting 10,000 or even 14,000 feet of elevation. Where I live in Indiana (646 feet of elevation), hill workouts are challenging in a different way.

But among the lessons I have learned from my coach, David Roche, is to not sweat it and find consistency in hill workouts, whatever that means to you and your geographic location.

Here are some tips for runners who face similar elevation challenges:

  1. Focus on form. In training, focusing on form trumps speed. As you develop the proper running form and develop strength, the speed will come. For hills, lean slightly forward and push into the hill. Keep your head upright (even if you don’t want to see what’s up ahead of you) and shorten your stride. A shorter stride will allow you to generate more foot speed and move up the hill more quickly.

  2. Go up hard, easy back down. This may sound counter intuitive. But think about it this way: When it comes to a race, you will gain more by improving how quickly you can move up a hill as compared to any gains on downhill running. Say you start out with a pace of a 16-minute mile slogging uphill. With practice, let’s say you can lower that to a 14-minute mile. It is not realistic that you would be able to lower your already fast downhill time by two minutes.

  3. Consistency is key. So, coach, how often should I do hill workouts? Every damn week. Hill workouts are speed work in disguise, as the old adage goes. Incorporating a hill workout session as part of an easy midweek run is an excellent way to get the benefits weekly without the necessity of extended recovery from a tough hill workout. Essentially for flatlanders (and others) this means a series of short hill repeats, say four or five for between 20 and 40 seconds, depending on the runner’s goals, training cycle, race goal, etc. Over time those workouts will set up the runner to plow through hills.

  4. Be creative. A big change in my training between my first 100K in May 2019 and the 100-miler I did six months later was to incorporate weekly hill sessions. When Coach Roche broached that idea, I warned him that my surrounding area was pancake flat, not the epic mountains of where he lives in Colorado. But thanks to his encouragement, I embraced hills and discovered ways to incorporate them into my routine. For example, I used to do my midweek recovery runs on the flat roads around my neighborhood. Now I generally start my runs heading out of my subdivision and toward the hills that I hit at around .6 of a mile and 1.5 miles.

  5. Treadmill power hiking works. In this time of the pandemic, you might have even fewer options for running hills. If you have access to a treadmill, it can help too. In addition to doing running workouts on the treadmill, I’ve used it as a supplement after a run. This is especially good training for ultras with a lot of vertical gain that require power hiking. I used this method about once a week while I trained for my 100K last year. After completing a run, I would crank up the treadmill to start around a 6 to 8 percent incline and begin power hiking, then move up the incline throughout. A good half-hour hike on already tired legs is solid training for those ultras that will include power hiking sections.

  6. Seek out new route options. Similar to the fourth item, I have searched out other routes — and in the process, I’ve discovered that there are hills near me. Not the epic monsters in Colorado, California, along the Appalachian Trail and elsewhere, but hills that will serve as solid repeats for me. For example, one of my regular weekly workouts calls for 8 miles with either 4x20 or 4x30 hill repeats. I’ve created a route that takes me past the hills mentioned in the previous item, then through a neighborhood with a gradual couple of hills and then I head over to another neighborhood around mile 5. There, I complete my repeats on a hill with a 6- to 8- percent grade. The consistency of the hill training has helped me prepare for a race in four weeks that promises hills.

While these tips focused on short climbs, there are lot of ways to incorporate longer hill workouts into your training. For flatlanders as you build up your fitness and hill running ability, seek out the challenge of a longer climb. Perhaps there is a state or local park nearby that offers some excellent trail running. Most of the previous suggestions will still apply to longer climbs.

When you find a longer climb, aim to maintain an even effort throughout and with a similar effort what you do on flat terrain. Keep the effort as consistent as possible from the start to the top.

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