Head for the Hills | August 25, 2009
Shorter distance race courses up to and including marathons are usually designed to emphasize speed. Promoters like to boast that their courses are “flat and fast.” When a marathon does include a significant hill, such as the 560 foot climb up Hurricane Point at the Big Sur International Marathon, all the hoopla and angst about it would make you think runners were being asked to scale Mount Everest. The ever storied Heartbreak Hill at the Boston Marathon is another good example. This “monster” takes over half a mile to rise to a paltry 230 feet. What you will find in running ultras is that climbing 230 feet over a half mile is very small potatoes indeed.
Ultra courses are typically planned with adventure and challenge in mind. They will showcase a remote wilderness area or stretch over seldom visited corners of state parks. The trails are often rugged. “Flat and fast” gives way, more often than not, to “twisted and torturous.” And most of the time there will be hills, if not actual mountains. Total elevation change, that is the combination of all uphill and downhill sections of a course, can run into the tens of thousands of feet for many courses. The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run is typical with 18 thousand feet of climbing and 22 thousand feet of descent, for a total elevation change of around 40 thousand feet. In fact, it’s not unusual to find ultras that have virtually no flat running at all over the entire length of the course. Once you leave the start, you are either climbing or descending almost nonstop until you reach the finish.
To round out your training for running ultras, then, you should plan on devoting part of your workouts to hill training. In fact, there’s no down side to spending a day or two each week running hills. Even if the particular ultra you are gunning for has a relatively flat course, hill training will transform you into a better runner on any terrain. Uphill training pits you against gravity and can burn up to triple the calories of a flat workout. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the lower body are all strengthened in concert with one another when running uphill. Hill training is like combining elements of speedwork and strength training into one efficient workout. Plus you can practice your technique for power walking uphill, which you will be doing a lot of in your ultra, and getting the most out of the downhills.
If you live in a hilly area, plot a training course that includes multiple climbs and descents, and then work that course into your routine one or two days a week. But a word of caution: don’t suddenly shift into hill running for all your workouts. Running uphill puts considerable strain on your muscles and connective tissues so you need to build up to these tougher workouts slowly. As you climb, keep your cadence about the same as when you are running on a flat surface but cut your stride length. On steeper sections, practice your power walk. Exaggerate your arm swing to drive you forward up the hill. You can supercharge the fitness benefit you get out of running uphill by attacking the very top of each hill with an explosive burst of knee lifting speed. You can also pick a single slope and do repeats. Run for two to four minutes up a moderate grade then jog back to the bottom. Repeat this four or more times. As you build strength and endurance, you can lengthen the climb and do more repetitions.
Miles of downhill running, probably way beyond what you are used to or are comfortable with, is something else you will encounter in many ultras. There are legions of stories about runners who show up under trained for Western States’ big downhills who wind up nursing their “shot quads” through the last half of the race. Past Western States race director Norm Klein claims this lack of preparedness for the hill running is the number one reason runners fail to finish the race. Doing lots of hill work will be your best insurance against finding yourself in the dead leg zone at your next hilly ultra. You can speed downhill pretty effectively by using a short quick stride with your feet slightly turned outward. Relax as much as possible and let gravity do the work. Try to avoid tensing up. Brake as little as you can get away with. Perfecting your technique will take some time so be patient and cautious at first.
What if you live in a really flat area and don’t have access to hills? Don’t worry. There are many ways to simulate hill training without the actual hills. A well arched bridge or an overpass can serve as your home base for repeats. Parking garages will often offer several stories of runnable up and down ramp. Running stairs in a high school or college stadium makes for an excellent workout and definitely works the key muscles you’ll need in a race. You can get a similar workout running the stair wells in any tall building or in your hotel while you’re on the road. Stairmasters and treadmills that can be adjusted to simulate climbing are also good ways to push your calves, hamstrings and quads hard. And of course lower body weight training with medium weight and high reps can build both strength and endurance.
Hills can be a major obstacle in a race if you are unprepared, even a showstopper. But if you put in the proper hill training ahead of time, you can find yourself “relaxing” up the hills with a good steady power walk and finding a speedy but comfortable zone to inhabit on your descents. Do enough hill training and you’ll turn those mountains into molehills.