Speedwork in Disguise

a triathlete running up a hill
January 30, 2017

D3 Staff


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You know the part of the race when you feel you've hit the wall. Maybe you are on a hill or the flattest section of the course. Your mind is telling your legs and arms to, "Drive! Pump! Fire like pistons!", but your muscles are crying out for mercy. We are demanding them to perform at a rate at which they are not conditioned. Our body can not supply the blood and oxygen that our hip flexors, in particular, are requiring to meet the demands of the coach inside our heads. Well, at least you've done your mental homework. But have you neglected working regular hill drills into your routine? Perhaps you do them but don't know why. Do you vary the type of workouts? How do you approach the hill?

One of the most famous proponents of hill training is Olympic coach Arthur Lydiard. His hill circuit training required the athlete to bound (focus on horizontal motion) or leap (focus on vertical motion) up the hill. Lydiard concentrated a great deal on hill running form to promote efficiency. Driving the knees, for example, is one aspect on which to focus, as well as toeing-off and slapping the heel to the buttocks. When done at a slower pace, a runner can focus more on technique and may actually feel more soreness than he/she expects from drill like repeats. Consider a weight routine in which you are lifting and lowering the weight more slowly. It hurts more! Gravity is our resistance on the hills.

The first cycle of hill workouts in a Lydiard season is geared towards strength. It consists of 6-8 repeats on a 1,000 meter moderate incline. As the season progresses and the focus changes to explosive speed, the repeats increase to 8-10 and the length of the hill shrinks to 275 meters. The stride down the hill is always fast but in control. Before the following hill repeat, Lydiard had his runners run about 250 meters in between 800 and 1600 pace. For Lydiard, who primarily trained track athletes, hill workouts were focused on after the base phase of building mileage. However, incorporating hills throughout the season has proven to be an effective way to improve efficiency (work harder and use less energy) without peaking too early (as sometimes happens with track workouts done too early in the season).

According to Stacy Osborne, an avid runner and podiatrist in the Cincinnati area, many of us ignore the importance of fine tuning/addressing our biomechanics, one of the most controllable aspects of our training and keys to improvement. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the leg on the ground that is primarily responsible for generating the power for forward velocity. Rather it is the non weight bearing leg, the leg in the swing phase, which generates the momentum by creating a tug on the runner?s center of gravity as it swings forward. The foot on the ground acts as a lever and the runner is thus propelled forward. Those muscles responsible for this ?power stroke?, the key hip flexors, are the illiacus, psoas major and psoas minor. These are also some of the most important muscles for cyclists, recruited during the pulling up phase.

One of the best ways to strengthen those hip flexors and in turn improve the power of our swing phase is to do hill repeats. As we gain strength, our chances of getting injured are diminished. Not only will we finesse our charges on inclines and finish line kicks on flats, hill repeats also increase our mental confidence. Once you've done 15 X 2:00 of a wicked hill, 1:00 climbing a similar incline in a race will look like a mole hill. It often surprises people that running hills improves speed. Actually, running hills is speed work in disguise. Your effort will increase as you run up a hill, even if you reduce your pace. Moving your body up the hill requires more work than moving it along a flat surface. Hill running is equivalent to throwing in a surge on the flats. So, in a race, the best way to run a hill is to maintain effort and forget about pace while on the hill. Even effort is the surest route to a faster time. Trying to maintain pace on the hill is like surging and varying the body?s perceived effort, which will only tire you prematurely in the 'long run'.

How else can you build tireless, feisty, power strokes using hill workouts? One way to maintain volume still is to do hill fartleks (Swedish for speed play). Pick a course with hills and focus on surging up the hills. If you are doing strict hill repeats, try varying the paces. For example, if you are doing four sets of three hills, do the first at 5k pace and the second at 10k pace. Focus on slow and exaggerated form on the third hill. Instead of varying the pace at which you run, you can vary the hill lengths themselves. If you are working in a group, pair up and run them like a relay such that your rest depends on how long as it takes your partner to get up and down the hill. Should you decide to run hills by time (i.e. 90 seconds on 5 hills), mark how far you get each time with a rock or little flag. Try to reach or beat that landmark each repeat. It is also good practice to try to surge over and past the crest of the hill. Who likes to be beat at the top of the hill because they've slowed down?

How well we run on hills depends on how we approach the hill, the mental factor. There are many of us that like to see hill repeats as an opportunity to practice conquering or attacking the hill. "You can never run a hill too hard, you will collapse before hurting it," said one runner. One tactic is to approach the hill as a friend rather than the enemy trying to defeat us. Look at it as an animate object providing a spring board to propel us forward, a friendly boost. Another helpful piece of imagery is to imagine strings attached to your hands and the string ends tied to a point at the top of the hill. As you pump your arms, thrusting your elbows behind you, imagine the strings providing you leverage to pull yourself up more easily. You don't have to turn your mind off to escape negative, self-defeating talk; instead, recruit your mind to help you!

As runners, triathletes need to recognize the importance of strengthening our hip flexor muscles. Strong flexors help us maintain a grueling pace, attack a hill, kick with speed on the flats, and protect our bodies from injury. They are an integral piece of training year round that, with variation, can make us more efficient runners and cyclists. Go ahead, be king of the hill! You’ll find yourself conquering other kingdoms elsewhere.

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