All / Big Five Marathon

Hill Training

Running up a hill is almost always the most dreaded part of a race. Many people will avoid hills in their training runs even if they know their race will include them. Running hills also increases the risk of injury if you’re not using proper form. On the flip side proper hill training can help you increase speed whether your race is hilly or flat and it also prepares you for hills on race day.

My first marathon was the Nike Women’s Marathon featuring a variety of hills through San Francisco. The first subtantial hill, approximately 6.5% hill grade, hits a little less than 10km into the race. For NWM I trained on moderate hills of about 3% – 4% that were about 400m in length. Living in Vancouver I also include the Grouse Grind as part of my hill training regime.

My general approach to hill training has been repititions. Find a hill that challenges you and is comparable to hills that will be faced on race day. I start out the first week of hill training by running the hill 3 – 4 times and then adding a repitition each week up until 2 – 4 weeks before race day depending on the race. I want to avoid injury the latter part of my training season and I also want to give my body time to recover.

So far in my races I have been able to look up at every hill and feel confident in my ability to overcome it with relative ease. Hill training has also enabled me to maintain my race pace easily over gentler / less steep hills. On flat courses I am able to increase my pace over the course of the season by including hill training because I am strengthening muscle groups that would not get the same sort of attention from other workouts.

Some hill training workout guides will tell you to begin hill training in week 6 or 7 and stop around 12 or 13. The goal is to ensure that you have sufficient strength in your muscles to begin hill training and then that you back off during the taper portion of your training season.

I am currently training for the Big Five Marathon on the Entabeni Game Reserve in South Africa. The altitude map of this course is daunting.

Big Five - Altitude Map

For this race I am not attempting to run hills that are similar to all of the race course hills in an effort to avoid injury and fatigue. Still my current hill training involves a short warm up and then running a 200m hill at a 9% hill grade, descending the same hill, immediately followed by running a 200m hill at 12.5%, then descending another 200m hill at 16.5%, climbing up the 16.5%, down the 12.5% and back up the 9%. Half way through my training season I am reaching the top of the 9% and 12.5% hills 10 times.

Because of the steep grade of these hills I descend on zig zag diagonals to reduce the impact on my knees and quads. Controlling the descending portion of your hill training is very important for avoiding injury. The hills are getting easier to climb and I am starting to get faster at them. When I encounter 4% – 6% hills on training runs they are easily climbable with no change to my pace. I’ve also recently run a sub-40 minute 10km.

Whether you are just starting out as a runner or an accomplished / seasoned runner I highly recommend including hill training that is specific to your goals. (i.e. my current hill training is race specific and not recommended for everyone.)

Runner’s World has some great articles on hill training here as does the UK edition here.

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