Can Hill Running Make You Faster?Tuesday, 5th February, 2008 - Amby Burfoot
Some runners avoid hills because they can cause injuries and they're, well, hard. Time to reconsider.
A few years ago, the Runner's World editorial offices were briefly moved to the other side of town. The new location was nestled at the foot of what we call "
I am not the first to discover this. East Africans have been traipsing up and down the steep slopes of the
Truth in editorial: I managed to hang on for only 10 minutes before bailing out. I hopped into
Medical research isn't exactly brimming with hill-training studies, but I located several with impressive results. A 1977 article in the European Journal of Applied Physiology concluded that runners who followed an intense six-week program of hard uphill running enjoyed "significant improvements in training distances, anaerobic capacity, and strength." A chapter in the International Olympic Committee's 1992 book Endurance and Sport reported a study of runners who did 12 weeks of regular training, plus "hill training with 'bounce running.'" After the 12 weeks, the subjects' running economy (or how efficiently they ran) increased by an average of three percent. That's a nice increase in a running variable that's not easy to improve. Of course, not everyone appreciates hills. Running up hills is not recommended for beginners because it puts too much stress on muscles and connective tissues that may not be ready to handle the load. It may also put extra stress on the knees and Achilles tendons.
Hill training made its first big impact in the early 1960s when runners from tiny
But Lydiard believed even middle-distance runners should begin their seasons with marathon-like training, and then move into what he called "hill circuits." Lydiard first described his program in the 1978 book Running the
At the top of the hill, jog 800 to 1,000 meters to recover, then plunge into the downhill run. The idea now is to "run fast, with relaxed, slightly longer strides." On Lydiard's personally designed loop in
At the bottom of the hill, do several sprint repetitions, varying between 50 meters and 400 meters. Says Lydiard: "These sprint repetitions begin the development of your capacity to exercise anaerobically." After six weeks of hill circuits, you're ready for four weeks of track work to reach a competitive peak.
Every guru needs a disciple, and Nobuya Hashizume has ably filled that role for Lydiard. Growing up in
Hashizume traveled to
That record lasted until 1996, when it fell--no big surprise--to a Kenyan. When Daniel Kihara ran 58:21, onlookers termed his effort "awe inspiring." Of course, they had not yet seen nor heard of Jonathan Wyatt.
Last June, Wyatt stormed up the
Oh, c'mon Jonathan, that's so lame. I ask him to plumb deeper into the subject, even though Wyatt is one of those plainspeaking Kiwis who would rather run up a mountain than rhapsodize about it. "Relaxation is one of the keys," he says after a long pause. "You don't ever want to go anaerobic. You need to push hard, but not go over the edge. I chop down my stride to become as efficient as I can, and I try to conserve arm energy. I don't think you need to pump your arms to run well on the hills."
Wyatt finished 21st in the Athens Olympic Marathon, a great performance, but not quite equal to the efforts of Americans Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi, both honed to an Olympic peak by the hill-training methods of Coach Joe Vigil. "Deena and Meb are always on the hills when they're training in
Vigil has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, so he views hill training through a technical lens. "We use oscillatory terrain to increase the athlete's adaptation to stress, and to teach a more efficient use of glycogen," he says. "It also gives them a nice reactive power that improves their running economy."
This marks the first-ever use of the word "oscillatory" in a running-training context, but Vigil is a scholar, so he has earned the right. Here's the second use: To improve your strength, endurance and speed, be sure to do hill training on an oscillatory basis. Your running will come alive.