Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Boosting Your Strength as a Runner Through Hill Training

I have been brainstorming for a blog post on winter running, but have decided to put that off a bit longer. It is, afterall, not officially winter yet! One of my readers has asked me about boosting speed and strength, and so I thought I'd address those questions with this blog post. Before I do, I have to reiterate that I'm not an expert in the sense of having studied sports medicine or personal training. But I have done a lot of reading and, more importantly, a lot of running, and have learned a thing or two that makes me a bit more expert than I once used to be. I hope you'll find what I have to say helpful! And any of you with alternate or opinions, please feel free to chime in with comments and suggestions.
A very important piece of training as a runner, especially looking at a goal race and a goal finish time, is strength training. While strength training could certainly take place at a gym or from cross-training, I'm a firm believer that the best way to strengthen the muscles you use to run, is to strengthen them by using them to run! But it is important to do so in a way that pushes them to strengthen by doing things that break up the routine of your everyday run around the block. It's when we do something unpredictable and different that maybe is a bit uncomfortable, that allow a plateau in training to turn into progress. I'm not going to say that "no pain no gain" is what I'm going for (injury and overtraining = bad). But I think discomfort, a little burning in the thighs for example, certainly helps you make gains. Hill repeats and speed intervals are a good example of this. These types of training allows you to dig deep and push yourself harder on race day because your legs have the strength to carry you.

Hill training and speed training are very different from one another and serve different functions in your training. But what they have in common is that they are different from your everyday run around the block. While we encounter hills often when we go running, it's different to intentionally run up and down the same hill over and over again, and really feel the burn in the thighs! Just like while it's fun to once in a while run faster than usual, it's also different to intentionally spend some time at the track focusing on speed sustained over a distance. It's also that these two different types of running allow you to move up from a runner running a distance at a race for completion, and a runner who is setting a time goal for the race, and who can realistically attain that goal because their legs are ready for it. Even on tired legs, an unexpected hill on the course can be overcome. And even on tired legs, you can boost your speed on the last few km. (the home stretch!) to finish within a better time than you would have if you ran the whole race at the pace you started at. You do this by running at a tested pace you used in your training that you know you can sustain over distance. I'm going to focus this blog today on hill training and write about speed work another day. They are both two different things; both wonderful in their own way that deserve individual attention.

I've come to really enjoy hill repeats. I don't do them all the time, as in, I'm not incorporating them into my current runs. They are something 'special' that I look forward to when I'm training for a race. Since the next thing I'm training for is my May marathon, I won't be doing hill session likely until sometime in February.

For me, it is really helpful to have a GPS watch to help me with the math involved in training that's a bit more specialized than your everyday run around the block. These gadgets can be a bit of an investment, but really worth it if you're committed to running and having a device to help you with the mathematical part of running. My Garmin Forerunner 305 allows me to measure distance and elevation gain over that distance so I can mark off the ideal hill I'm going to run my repeats week after week. I can also set it to measure my speed over each repeat, so I can track my progress. Am I getting slower or faster at these hills? Am I faster this week over last week? And it comes with a heart rate monitor which helps me on hill session days to know if I'm pushing myself hard enough. Here are the basics:

When to do them:
  • Starting week 1 of a 12-week 10km training plan
  • Starting week 6 of a 16-week half marathon training plan
  • Starting week 7 of an 18-week marathon training plan
  • Space it out from your long run day so there's time for recovery from both of these harder workouts. I do long runs on Sundays, because we tend to have more time on Sundays. These focus on endurance. Hill sessions that focus on strength are tough sessions too, but are shorter and easier to find time for. I do them on Wednesdays so it's not even close to those tough Sunday sessions. A short easy recovery run on Thurs and a rest day on Friday helps the body ready itself for hard weekend running.
What a hill repeat looks like:
  • Yes, it is as it sounds: running up the same hill over and over again! Go up, go down, rinse, repeat...
  • Run up at 85% effort (ie., this is where a heart rate monitor is helpful - learn what 85% of your maximum heart rate would be) so you're exerting yourself, feeling it in the legs, breathing hard, but aren't over-exerting yourself to the point of danger
  • When you reach the top, smile, tell yourself you did a good job, and then head downhill to recover and start again. Either take a slow jog or walk down. Take the same amount of time to recover as it took you to run up the hill (i.e., another case where a watch that can time you is helpful)
  • It can take a while to find the right hill, but when you do, stick to it and return to the same one each week so you can measure your progress. I recommend finding a stretch in a quiet residential area, if you can, to avoid having to stop for traffic, weave around dog walkers, or feeling self-conscious that "people are watching" and wondering what the heck you're doing
  • Remember that hills build strength and character, and they're not meant to be easy. I try to lower my shoulders, lean back a bit, and use a running posture that allows me to visualize the hill as being flat and achievable. I tell myself the same thing I tell myself on race day, "dig deep, push hard, and know you CAN and WILL do this." I find I also rely on the strength in my arms and upper body to help propel me - my legs will have no choice but to follow suit.
The math and science to hill sessions:
  • Start with a warm-up (ie., a 2-3km easy run is a good warm-up) before starting your session. End with a cool-down jog after (another 2-3km) to help your body and your legs to recover and to prevent you from feeling achy later.
  • 10km training plans should start at 4 or 5 repeats on week 1. Add 1 more to your session each week until you reach 10 or 11 repeats. Decide on the number that's right for you and your training plan
  • Half marathon training plans should start at 4 or 5 repeats on week 6. Add 1 more to your session each week until you reach 9 or 10 repeats. Decide on the number that's right for you and your training plan
  • Marathon training plans should start at 4 or 5 repeats on week 7. Add 1 more to your session each week until you reach 9 or 10 repeats. Decide on the number that's right for you and your training plan
  • Find a hill that has an 8-10% elevation gain (again, GPS is very helpful for this), and measure out a 200m stretch for 10km training or a 400m stretch for half marathon or marathon training
Once you've reached your highest number or hill repeats you need for your training plan, it's time to take a break from them and replace those Wednesday sessions with speed work for the remaining weeks of your training (until the end, or until your taper).

This blog post is long enough, so I will write about speed sessions another time. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Haha, just reading this made me feel some pain in my thighs :P