Hills: How to Learn to (Really) Love Them
Let’s face it. Hills aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They can challenge us to the point of horror and sometimes have a way of sucking the life right out of us. The reason for this is that the human mind and body was designed to resist physical challenges as a way of conserving energy. That is also the reason why a lot of people choose not to run but rather stroll or sit, because it is much easier.
But we runners know better. We know that running may be tough at times, but the rewards are so much more. And the same goes for running hills. They may challenge us in the moment, but they never fail to reward. It is a little like eating spicy food, it hurts so good that you can’t wait to do it again!
Run for the hills!
Cringing at the thought of a hill-repeat session? Once we understand the benefits of hill running, the battle is halfway won. Hill running is the most complete, all-inclusive form of running training you can find. If you were limited to only one type of workout for the rest of your running life, hills should be it.
Let’s have a look at some of the benefits of running hills:
- Uphill running activates the formation of all types of muscle fibres, fast- as well as slow-twitch. Slow-twitch muscles are the ones that are activated first during an aerobic workout and they fatigue slowest. Slow-twitch muscles therefore aid endurance. Fast-twitch muscles work anaerobically and therefor tire quickly. They are needed for speed and short bursts of powerful exertion such as sprinting. They also take over once the slow-twitch muscles are energy depleted, so fast-twitch muscles will also help you go further.
- Running on inclines promotes the adoption of a better running technique by forcing you to step on the ball of your foot and take smaller strides.
- Hill training yields the same benefits as weight training for calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes.
- A regular hill workout is one of the fastest ways to build endurance, speed and overall aerobic fitness.
- Mastering a hill session will give you more confidence as a runner. Who wants to run fast, flat races for the rest of their lives? Sure they are good for chasing a PR every now and then, but chasing PRs are exhausting! Running hilly trails and races allow you to experience views that you will cherish and revisit in your mind long after the pain has subsided. Sure, hilly trails can be very tough, but the rewards of the experience way surpass the pain.
Now that we know why we should be running hills, let’s look at how to learn to love them. Like with all challenges, the toughest bit of overcoming your hill adversity is in the mind. Once you have convinced your mind to love hills, you will start looking forward to your hill sessions and they WILL become easier, even enjoyable. Here is how to change your mind about hills.
Fake it ‘till you make it
The mind has an uncanny way of reacting to messages you feed it, and even more effectively when it hears the words spoken out loudly. Whether what you say is the truth at the moment or not, it will become the truth for you shortly after putting it out there. So why ever speak negatively about something you wish was easier? It won’t become any easier once you’ve called it hard, or told yourself that you just can’t do it.
Feed your mind with positive messages by saying positive things out loudly, such as ‘hills make me strong’, ‘I’ve totally got this’, ‘l can’t wait to see the view up top’. Stop telling yourself (and all within earshot) that ‘these hills are killing me’ or ‘I loath hills’. The grunting and swearing is also not helping! Focus on controlling your mind by fooling it initially. Within a very short time it will become the truth, and you will ook forward to those hill sessions.
Keep the effort, not the pace
Some runners tend to speed up once they approach a hill. This is a tactic of the mind to get the tough bit over and done with, but also a surefire way to leave you spent and exhausted at the top and walking or limping down the other side. Rather than trying to keep up your pace while running uphill, focus on keeping the current effort. Monitor this by checking your breathing. If your breathing becomes notably harder, take smaller steps or slow down a bit until you find a comfortable pace that can be sustained all the way up the hill. In this way you will have sufficient energy to run the downhill slightly faster and still manage to keep the overall pace.
Strike a bargain
Part of conning your mind into a deep, everlasting love for hill running is to get it to believe that any hill can be mastered, on any day, during any run. A love for hills is a good habit that can be adopted and needs to be nurtured at any opportunity that presents itself.
How do you nurture this love? Next time on a run, bargain with yourself to run every single hill that comes up, no matter how slow, but to keep running. Tell your legs that they can have a good rest once you are on a flat section again. Chances are good that, once you hit a flat or downhill and the going gets easier, you won’t cash in on the walk reward. It is important to keep running at least a few paces after cresting a hill in order to get rid of lactic acid buildup. A byproduct of the use of the powerful, anaerobic short-twitch muscles is lactic acid, which is removed again through aerobic running.
The easiest and most effective way to build stamina and start reaping the rewards of hill training is to do hill repeats. Find a hill that is not too steep that takes between two to three minutes to run up. For this workout to be effective and fun, don’t concentrate on forward speed or try to outdo the previous rep or session. Focus on the quality of each repetition.
Be mindful of the task at hand, always focusssing on keeping the correct form. Keep your shoulders relaxed and not clenched while the arms drive up. Gaze about twenty meters forward and lean a little into the hill at the hips. Be careful not to bend at the waist but keep the torso straight to effectively aid breathing. Keep strides short with a fast turnover rate, treading lightly on the balls of the feet. Rather walk or take a rest once fatigue causes you to lose form to prevent injury.
Use the downhills to recover by jogging down at an easy pace. Concentrate on keeping strides small and your weight over your feet by leaning forward slightly.
Add a hill-repeat session to your weekly schedule and spice up your long runs with a few hills. Before long you will reap the benefits of being faster, fitter and confidently lining up for all of those tough but scenic races.