If you plan to run a hilly course, whether it’s a 5k or marathon, you better have a good game plan. With the right technique you can master your next hilly race and actually throw a PR into the mix. Lets be honest, though, you do need to practice them. In the majority of our training runs (and races for that matter) there is a down for every up. Running hills can really take a toll on your bod, though, so you need to be careful. In fact, research indicates that downhill running can increase your risk for ITB Syndrome.
Delving further into the research we find that uphill running actually places less stress on your joints than level ground running. If you think about it though, that should make sense. As we push up the hill gravity will slow us down for every step, decelerating us as we hit the ground. There will, however, be more muscular requirements to fight that gravity, possibly opening the door for an overuse injury.
Getting back to why were here… how to handle the hills in your running. I love to use the analogy of a semi-truck. If you’ve ever been caught near a semi or large RV (read RV as Eddy from Christmas Vacation) on the thruway, this should make perfect sense. Hills are all about pacing and staying within yourself. When a semi-truck climbs a hill it takes awhile.. gravity wins out and slows the truck down; however, once that truck crests the hill watch out! The mass of the truck allows it to hurl down the hill uncontrollably.
What most do:
Most runners do one of two things: 1. Try to maintain pace or 2. Get to the top as fast as possible.
Why you will blow up:
This is more true with longer races, but still relevant for 5ks. Your heart rate is a negative feedback system. It’s delayed to your effort, waiting for your muscles to signal that they need more oxygen. This is why hills typically feel the steepest after you’ve been on them for a few minutes. Your heart is finally catching up with your muscles. This causes a spike in your heart rate and resulting fatigue. Every spike in heart rate yields less recovery. Once you settle in again you will likely be a few beats higher. Spike enough times, specifically in a short period of time, and you’re in for a world of hurt.
What you should do:
Let gravity win.. unless you’re running a significant uphill race, you will get your chance to make up the lost time. Depending on the hill you can slow 60+ seconds/mile. The key is to keep your heart rate down. Let it climb gradually, limiting yourself to fewer than 5-6 beats for said hill.
How to make up for lost time:
The downhill is where you shine! Remember that semi-truck? Let ‘er rip! The downhill will allow you to gain any lost time on the hills previously found in the race. If racing, you should feel balance between staying upright and, lacking for a better phrase, falling on your face (take it easier in training). Use graivity to your advantage. You can even let your arms go a little bit and let them flale, using them for balance.
I’ve practiced this for a few seasons and its a concept that seems so logical when written down, but so many runners smash the hills and pay for it. Pacing is everything. I’ve run a few long distance races (marathon to 50 mile ultra) sucessfully with nearly even splits. Recently, I ran Pittsburgh and nearly even split the race (off by less than a minute) with a considerable uphill climb in the first half (see profile below). The next time you start to climb, remember: it should feel overly easy on the up. Don’t freak out and worry about your time (for most this will go in one ear and out the other) wait for your chance on the downhill.
[picture of PGH race profile]