I hope that title didn’t steer you away from reading this. I know hills generally really stink. Most people hate them. Sadists seem to love them (at least that is what I think they must be). I have yet to meet a person who looks at race elevation charts hoping to find a hilly marathon. But there really is a lot to be gained by adding hills to your runs.
Here in Chicago there are not a lot of hills to be found, but when I am in New York City I often run Central Park and there you will find they are a dime a dozen. Head up to the north end of the park and you will find the ultimate hill to train on. It is one of those hills where reach what you think is the top and start to smile thinking you made it, only to realize that it has just begun. That kind of hill! To be honest, when I go for a hilly run like Central Park I don’t mind dealing with the ups and downs that much because I know what to expect. If you can learn to embrace hills, even just a little bit, you will find gains in your speed and racing technique.
Hill training at the very core helps build up your cardiovascular system. It teaches your body to become more efficient at getting that oxygen into your body and then sending it out to your muscles. This training will also help your body to get rid of that nasty lactic acid faster. While hills put a minimal amount of stress on your body they also help you to improve your running form, making you an all around more efficient runner.
It is really important to know what to expect at your upcoming races. If you have hilly terrain on your race elevation maps, you are going to definitely want to add this training to your schedule. Match your training to the type of terrain you will be dealing with and you will see an improvement in your race times. That being said, if Boston is on your schedule this year, you are probably already knocking out hill workouts. If you are training for Chicago, a rather flat course, you won’t need to focus as much on hill workouts (but you should still do them).
So how do you implement this into your training? First you need to find either a hilly course or at least one good hill. At the very basic level hills are a bit like intervals. You are going to run with a very brisk pace up to the hill and then jog at a conversation pace to recover before repeating this plan. If you are running your hills on a course you will run briskly up and then jog slowly to the next one. If you are using just one hill, you will simply just run up and jog slowly back down to the bottom. A good goal is to do this series of repetitions for about 15-30 minutes.
Keep in mind that you are not sprinting up to the top of the hill. This is a brisk, but submaximal pace. Follow this up with a nice easy gait back to the start. Your pace will also vary on how steep the hill is and by how many repetitions you will be doing. If you are only doing 5 sets on a rather small hill, you can push the pace a bit more than if you are doing 10 sets on a very steep hill.
If you want to build hill work into your training plan you can do a 15 minute warm up at the start, followed by 15-30 minutes of hill training and then end with a 15 minute cool down. This will make for a well rounded workout.
Another great thing about working on hills is that it can really help you with your race technique. A great coach, my dad, told me that races can be won on the hills. I have actually seen this work in my favor. I have run several races that either have one or two giant hills or the entire course has been based around hills. In the case of the race with a few giant hills I have gone into the race knowing that I will need to save a little something for those hills. When I finally get to that hill I give it a good push. It is here where your mind starts to scream and cry and tell you this sucks! If you ignore it and push through it you will start to pass a lot of runners who are either breaking down mentally or pushed off too hard at the start. On the other hand, during races built on an entire hilly course you can give it a steady pace and use the hills to pass a lot of runners who struggle (again either mentally or physically) getting up those hills. Both of these techniques have allowed me to really come out ahead during races.
Finally, there is another rule that I always keep in mind when dealing with hills and every time I run Central Park. For every uphill, remember there is likely to be a downhill. So tuck your chin, look straight ahead and deal with it. There is a good chance than when you reach the top you are going to have some time to coast.