“Hills are your friend.” My dad used to always say this to me before races and difficult training sessions that involved rolling terrain. Several years of racing cross country, marathons, (and now trail ultras), I hear that statement as positive self talk in my mind, although it is slightly modified to “Uphills are your friend.”
The fact of the matter is that unlike a lot of ultra trail runners that I’ve seen, I suck on the downhills. As mentioned in my Chuckanut 50k race recap, I was amazed at how quickly some of the top runners were able to descend technical single-track at high rates of speed. In racing with 2011 Mountain Running Champion Max King for the first 2.5 hours at Chuckanut, I had a front row view to his amazing downhill running abilities.
So in this blog post I’m going to focus on my strength (and something I may be a little more qualified to talk about) i.e. uphill running.
Running up hills has many attributes that can make you a faster, stronger, and more versatile runner on the trails. Considering the elevation gains during many notable ultras (Leadville 100 and the Speedgoat 50 come to mind first) or on just about any mountainous trail run, specific preparation to tackle steep ascents is essential. Famed running coach Jack Daniels mentions the “law of specificity in training” in his book Daniels’ Running Formula, which basically comes down to this: if you want to improve your ability to run uphill, you must practice and train your body for the specific demands involved. Such demands, or training stimuli, involve a myriad of cardiovascular and skeletal-muscular adaptations.
In terms of training your heart and lungs, running up hills gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Even in covering relatively short horizontal distances, the amount of vertical gain you can achieve on an ascent (and the amount of time you spend climbing) requires a high level of work output. In other words, it is quite easy to devise lactate threshold and Vo2max workouts within a hill session, as often your heart rate has skyrocketed very close to those respective intensities. Such intense efforts strengthen the heart muscle, increase stroke volume, and improve your ability to keep blood lactate levels at a constant, manageable level. These attributes of aerobic fitness development, as well as increased aerobic enzyme activity, and changes in the density and size of mitochondria, will improve your ability to cover all distances more efficiently.
In term of training your muscular system, running up hill has traditionally been a method employed by coaches to develop strength and improve running form. For example, Arthur Lydiard’s training is known to involve a specific hill phase involving regular uphill repeats. Famed marathon Coach Renato Canova has advocated the improvements in neuromuscular coordination derived from running short, steep hill sprints. Essentially, when you run uphill your running form changes so that you have to work specific muscles (quads, glutes, calves and your core muscles mainly) in a way that will make you a more economical runner. The high knee lift, a slight forward lean, a shortened stride with a more pronounced midfoot strike and toe-off, and an exaggerated arm swing pays dividends on developing your speed over time.
As I prepare for the rigors of the Mt. Washington Road Race (7.6 miles at an average grade of 12%) I find myself starting to think about runs in terms of vertical gain rather than just horizontal miles. I’ve found that the variety in training can be refreshing to a trail runner who is constantly seeking challenges and adapting. The benefits of running uphill not only include an increase in fitness, but also lead to a higher level of fulfillment and enjoyment in the sport.
Train Smart, Race Hard, and Run Happy,
P.S. Here’s a video of a sample uphill workout that I did to prepare for the Chuckanut 50k back in March 2012: