Thank you all for your warm congrats on my weekend 5K race. My performance and the PR was a pleasant surprise to me for several reasons. First off, as this was only my second 5K ever, I consider myself a novice short distance racer at best. So to be able to hang with some of the best NYC racers who almost all probably had experience running this distance in high school or college, is pretty gratifying for me. Secondly, I pulled off a shockingly good race despite trashing my legs on a hilly 16 miler the day prior. If I can PR and run sub-6 miles on tired and sore legs, imagine what I could do if I was adequately tapered and rested? Thirdly, so how 'bout those hills? While all the post race discussion from other racers was focused mainly on how unexpected hilly the course was, I might have been the only one who wasn't bothered at all, as evidenced by my consistent paces through all 3.1 miles. (Shhh...I know, I know. I will probably be struck down by the racing gods the next time I go running for proclaiming victory over hills!)
In actuality, it is to this last point that I want to make the focus of this post. I've received a few emails over the past couple of days asking for specific details on my hill workouts and how I incorporate them into the context of a marathon training plan. I find these questions kind of ironic because they make it seem as if I've got some astute insight on hill training that the rest of the running world isn't privy too when truthfully, I'm pretty new at this myself. As a matter of fact, prior to this training cycle during which I've been forced to run on the treadmill way too many times due to the harsh winter, I've never done a single hill sprint, hill set, or any type of hill workout whatsoever! I've always assumed that training on a hilly terrain (like Central Park) would be sufficient to prepare for a hilly race. It wasn't until I've moved out of the city and into a part of town with no natural hills but full access to treadmills that I found out how valuable dedicated hill workouts can be. Looking back now, I dare say I'm more physically and mentally prepared now to tackle the Central Park hills than I ever was running and training there every day. Go figure. So how did I get to this point and how has my approach to hills changed since I've started hill training a couple of months ago? In an effort to help my fellow runner friends, including those who will undoubtedly use this information to beat me in my next hilly 5k race, let me share with you my perspective on running hills and hill training. (Just keep in mind, though, that this is based only on my own observations, conjectures, experiences and knowledge. It is by no means the only way or even necessarily the right way. Reader discretion is advised.)
Let me start by discussing proper hill running technique. This is an important topic because if you don't have a good approach to running hills, then you won't be very successful at it no matter how often or how many hills you run. The way NOT to run hills is by increasing your effort and intensity while keep the same stride length with the hope of maintaining a consistent pace during the climb and then burning through the downhill as fast as possible to regain lost time. The truth of the matter is that you will lose much more energy fighting both gravity and pace during the uphills and running hard on the downhills than by running a little slower and conserving energy on the uphill and surrendering to the flow of gravity on the downhills. I can't claim ownership of this concept since I read it off a NY Times article offering tips on proper bridge running techniques in the days leading up to the New York City Marathon last year, but it makes complete sense to me. The way to circumvent this problem then is by shortening your stride and increasing your turnover on the uphills (think of it as downshifting on a bike) and opening up your stride while maintaining a similar turnover on the downhills (Don't brake or you'll land on your heels and burn your quads!) This will help keep your heart rate spike to a minimum on the uphill climb and allow for faster running with minimal expenditure of energy on the downhill. If you practice this approach and execute it during races, you will find that you have to "recover" less quickly than your neighbors after cresting a hill, allowing you to pass them with ease.
So that's the technique. How about some actual workouts? When I started this, I had no idea what treadmill settings to use or how to plan an actual hill workout. So I consulted with the great Greg McMillian (yes, the coach behind the popular McMillian calculator) in this Running Times article. I took the first workout and literally ran with it. The first time I tried it, I was only able to manage three sets at marathon pace (not the six as prescribed) and it was all I could do not to throw up after each one. The next day I felt so sore and had so much pain in my knees and my hamstrings that I literally could not run. That's when I realized that I needed to customize the workout to something that I could handle because otherwise it'd never get done and I'll injure myself trying. So I decreased the incline settings from the 6 and 7% as prescribed to a more manageable 4 and 5% on the next hill workout session. Because Cat Hill registers a 3.4% grade and Harlem Hill a 4.4%, I felt that I was still doing comparable work with those treadmill hill settings. After making these adjustments, I felt much better and was able to do all three sets I had planned. Since then, with every succeeding week, I've felt more and more comfortable with these workouts. I add an extra set every other week or so and can now pull off six of these without too much wear and tear on my body. Personally, I think I can probably now afford to shift the incline up another percent, but because things are going so well and I'm actually training for a flat marathon this time around and not a hilly one, I will save that experiment for the next go around. Honestly, I think the consistent hill repeats have helped me build so much more confidence running hills. I no longer dread them like I use to. I think of them now as just another 60 or 90 sec hill repeat, no matter how steep. It's really no big deal when you're used to doing 5 or 6 of these at a time!
So that's my hill training story in a nutshell. I hope it inspires someone to think about incorporate a similar workout into their regular training routine. There are so many varieties of hill sprints, hill intervals, and hill runs you can do that it really behooves you to try one or a few of these. One word of caution though. If you're trying anything for the first time, don't go all gangbusters and run 6 sets of repeats all at once. You can get injured very easily because they stress and strain your muscles in a different way than normal running. So go slow and be careful. Do one or two for your first session and see how you feel a day later. Then come back a few days afterwards and try again. Tailor your workouts to your current level of fitness and your training goals and objectives. Be flexible, experiment, and have fun with it! If you do them with consistency, you'll quickly come to realize how valuable and indispensable they are both as strength training and as a component of speedwork. So go run some hills!