The Blue Mountains is an incredible landscape made up of an extensive gorge system and ridge lines that extend as far as the eye can see. For runners, the area includes a huge amount of rolling hills on fire trail, steep bush track, and if you've tuned into any of the commentary surrounding Ultra-Trail Australia, stairs and lots of them. Today we are going to focus on the hill component of the race and how best to address this in training.
Why should I be doing hill reps?
You're going to be spending a lot of time running up and down hills on race day so it makes sense to familiarise yourself with that process on both a physiological and psychological level. But putting the obvious point aside, let's look as the benefits of hill reps and how they may look in your training.
1. As a general rule, running uphill elicits a greater cardiovascular response than other forms of running. That's simple enough to understand - your flat easy runs are usually less aerobically demanding than your hilly runs. It then makes sense to maximise this response in training to elicit the most desirable training adaptations.
2. Running uphill can reduce peak ground reaction force due to a reduction in speed.
This, combined with point number 1, presents a desirable training environment. Why wouldn't you make the most of something that maximises your oxygen consumption while at the same time reducing the structural stress normally associated with running harder on the flat ground?
3. Gravity plays a bigger role in uphill running which in turn elicits greater musculature adaptations. As grade increases, the force required to propel yourself forward (and up) also increases, placing a higher demand on specific muscles.
4. There's a good chance you're going to be spending more time going uphill than downhill on race day, so it makes sense to train for improved performance running uphill. That's not to say we can't target downhill running as well (more on this later), but we should consider which component of running elicits the greater cardiovascular response. Want to get fitter? Run uphill repetitions. Want to get stronger and increase your capacity to handle muscle breakdown? Run downhill repetitions.
What do hill reps look like in training?
Hill reps can range from very short (10 seconds) through to very long. The real question you should be asking yourself is what are you trying to achieve by including hills in your training?
Are you looking for neuromuscular adaptations? Try short hill sprints (4-6 x ~10 seconds) with lots of rest (2-3+ minutes) between reps.
Are you looking to stress V02 max? Try 3-5 minute hills with equal recovery. Sessions like 6 x 3 minute hills are a staple of many training groups around the world.
Are you looking to stress lactate threshold? Long hill reps are key! Try and find a long hill where you can run anywhere from 5-20 minutes with half recovery. You should be looking to accumulate anywhere from 20-60 minutes of time at lactate threshold in a single workout, depending on the principle of progressive overload and how trained your threshold is and/or how rested you are. The most trainable component of physiology for endurance runners is lactate threshold, so these sessions become a staple for many runners as they move closer to race day.
Hill reps do's
Progress your sessions throughout your training block. A basic approach is to move from the least specific sessions through to most specific sessions. Progression can refer to volume and intensity as well as frequency.
If you're new to running, ensure you're at the capacity to include hills in your programming.
Warm up prior to your session with some flatter running and some short strides.
Ease into your session and allow yourself time to slot into the desired intensity.
Hill reps don'ts
Don't start with big sessions without earning the right to run at that intensity or volume.
Don't ruin the quality of your workout by blowing up in the first rep. Remember the goal of the session and the intensity you're looking to accumulate time at.
Don't lose your form. Simple enough.
Don't place all your emphasis on hills or do all your workouts on hills. It's important to remember the value of leg speed and when to prioritise sessions on flat terrain.
What about downhill reps?
Use these sparingly, or use an entirely different approach. There is research to suggest that the adaptations experienced from running downhill with force last a long time. It's also important to remember that running downhill doesn't elicit a huge cardiovascular response.
A different approach to running downhill and combatting the breakdown of muscle may be to run the descents harder and controlled during your long run a couple of times over the course of a training block (Eg: 8 weeks out and 4 weeks out). Descending well is a skill and the skill component of descending will always be a limiting factor for runners who struggle to descend.