Training

A Perfect Time to Hit the Hills

Find and fill your training plate with the wide variety of hill flavors.

Shelter-in-place rules mean most of us aren’t getting far from home, but we can still get out and explore our neighborhoods while keeping our distance from people. One way I’ve long enjoyed exploring is to scout for great hills to run. They don’t need to be scenic or even steep: their beauty is in how they affect the flavor of the run.

As a runner and coach, I’ve always loved hills. It probably started because, as a runner with limited top-end turnover, I gained an advantage on speedsters when the terrain got tougher simply through tenacity. Soon I learned to tackle the hills with gusto just when others were wallowing, enhancing the belief that hills were my friends. 

That belief was reinforced as I experimented with training and discovered that nothing develops you as a runner faster and more effectively than charging up slopes. I learned it’s not just the physiological benefits—which are plenty—but also how a hill lures you into greater effort than you would normally encounter on the flat, and how in accepting and embracing that effort you become comfortable with the discomfort and gain the confidence to be able to run harder and faster. 

cresting hill
photo: TLB

Early on I started enjoying and using different hills for different purposes, both psychological and physical. When I was frustrated and overcome by adolescent emotions, one steep half mile in town was perfect for hammering up and down until I reached a peaceful exhaustion. Another hill toward the end of my usual 9-mile loop developed and revealed my growing endurance during off-season training weeks.

The summer of my sophomore year in high school, I read legendary coach Arthur Lydiard’s Running the Lydiard Way in which he described his hill circuit: “Try to find a hill at least 300 meters long, rising at a gradient of near one in three, on a road, in the country, or on a forest trail, with 400–800 meters of reasonably flat ground at both the top and bottom. The best alternative is a circuit with smallish, steep hill for uphill work, a less steep hill for downhill running, and flattish areas both top and bottom between them for speed training and jogging.” 

Lydiard’s detailed description awakened a new sensitivity to hills and all their variables. I scouted out and found a loop that closely matched Lydiard’s circuit, and enjoyed getting the full effect of his hill running, bounding and springing up and striding down. And I quickly noted the improvements in speed, power and efficiency.

Beyond the length and grade, I began to develop an eye for the many types of hills and their feel and effect. In the ensuing years, I have, like many runners, refined my appreciation for the nuanced flavors of hills. Even when driving, I’ll note a choice climb and wish I could taste its unique application of oxygen debt and muscle burn. On the run, I’ll come across a slope, see it for its potential, and excitedly head back down to sample it at a harder pace, devising the workout I—and the cross country team—can do on it.

sample hill workout

I’ll savor the way one hill will increase in slope and crank up the heat right when you’re feeling the burn. The way another will lure you with a false summit and make you settle in for a hundred more meters—discovering the satisfying taste of sustained effort, so that you’re almost disappointed when it ends. Or the way a staggered ascent will give you just enough recovery to keep the pace rolling through the next incline until it marinates your legs. A slight grade might add the perfect spice to make a 400m-repeat session sizzle; a series of short, quick rollers can shake up a tempo run and improve your stride and rhythm.

On a dead-end road near where I live now I recently found a seemingly-benign 700-meter segment that seems to mimic the stress and emotions of a race: You’re drawn out too fast on the flatter first section; as the hill gets steeper you panic a bit and have to regroup and keep your rhythm; on the body of the hill, you have to ignore how far away the top looks and find the resolve to breath hard, settle into the work and keep rolling; and finally, as the hill crests, the load lightens enough to let you speed up through the finish. And yes, the cross country team found it particularly diabolical, but they all ran PRs a week later.

rolling hill workout
photo: 101 Degrees West

As you’re exploring this spring, be on the lookout for inclines on neighborhood streets, bike paths and trails on which to do the wide variety of hill workouts that work different systems. But beyond length and grade, I invite you to pay attention and appreciate the character of each hill, savoring its flavor and cataloging it to return to when that particular blend is just what you need to enhance your running and take you to new heights.