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Techniques To Conquer Those Hills In Ultra Running

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How an individual handles the uphill battle determines what their made of – in ultra running and in life as well. How do we achieve growth the quickest? That will depend on the amount of resistance that a runner is willing to take and hills are resistance in its rawest form. During an ultra marathon a runner could face anything between 30 to 30,000 feet of elevation gain and sometimes even higher. With this in mind, strategizing your hill climbs is just as essential as the overall distance itself. Love them or hate them, like it or not, intense vertical gain is an everyday commonality for an ultra runner. Although hills are unavoidable in general, fortunately enough, we do have a choice in how we manage them. So here’s a few techniques that should help do the trick.

Train For Them

Without diving too deep into the specific techniques of hill training, let’s just keep things simple. The key to hill training is training on the same elevation that you will face on race day. Amazingly, the beauty of the outdoors is also its hidden benefit, that is, no one thing is the same. You’ll never see two of the same rocks, trees, paths, etc. One trail can be long and flat while the other can be short and steep. No elevation where you live? Well then, become familiar with treadmill inclines, stair masters, and parking garages. The take home here is this: be more creative than your excuses and train on inclines similar to what you’ll see on race day.

Small quick steps

Keeping your strides small and quick up hill changes the overall dynamic of a runner’s motion. Try this– first, while progressing uphill take a few lunges. Next, make your way up the same hill but this time take small shorter steps. Which takes less effort? Its the latter every time. Similar to shifting a bike to a lower gear, a shorter step requires more revolutions but less energy per revolution. The change in motion can simultaneously feel be both draining and energizing considering the long distances we run as ultra marathon runners. In this way, the hills begin to disappear and your experience becomes much more enjoyable on race day.

Speed Hike

Another technique for race day is to walk the hills. Place your hands on your hips, knees, or swing those arms and speed hike upwards. Once on top, begin running, and make up your time on the down hills. Fly down those quad screaming descents by releasing the brakes and letting gravity work its magic. Ever loose too much energy during a race? If you look at your race day energy as a bank, walking hills can help provide an evenly distributed withdraw all the way to the finish line without blowing to much steam in the process.

Run them, Run them fast

Here’s the most basic of the bunch. Just run those hills and take the beating. Sure, this may not be the most strategic or energy efficient technique but sometimes you just do what you have to do. Here’s the trick, once you reach the top, slow your pace down considerably, re-energize, and pick it right back up to a race day pace.

Trekking Poles

Although most races do not allow them, some ultra marathons offer such demanding vertical gains allowing the option to use trekking poles. But here’s the catch, once you decide on optimizing this advantage than you must hold them for the entire race. No ditching them off at the next aid station, that extra weight is yours to the finish. Personally, I have never used trekking poles so I cannot offer any first hand advice, however, I’ve seen them in action and they look to be beneficial for getting up those hills quickly. Just some food for thought.

Embrace Them

Hills, the good, the bad, and the extremely painful. Hills will always be present. One way or another they are always waiting, patiently and persistently, so find the hill or the hill will find you. Personally, I’ve learned to embrace the hills during ultra marathons. They are a change of pace, a break for other muscles, and a chance to see some pretty unbelievable views. So don’t worry, once you decide to embrace the hills then you will be in luck, because once you reach the top of one hill, there seems to always be another hill to follow.

Final Thoughts

Thinking back to the many different ultra marathons I’ve ran where I literally felt like my shoes transformed into cement blocks and could barely run another inch up an incline. It makes you wonder at times why in the world you would punish yourself in such a way. On the contrary, I think back to some hills that made me stronger and brought me front row and center to some of the most magnificent views I’ve ever witnessed. Something about catching the morning sunrise while making your way up the side of a mountain after running twenty four hours is both motivational and inspirational. Hills will always be available but they are only relative to the resistance we put ourselves through. I’ve seen flatlanders drop out of hilly races and interesting enough, I’ve seen sky runners drop out of flat races. Either way, if we choose a particular strategy and push against the resistance of the hill, our body will ultimately adapt. We will become stronger and faster ultra runners, an ultra runner where we can run up those hills instead of away from them.

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