What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about running hills? I’m guessing most of us don’t necessarily jump for joy or run toward a hill skipping with glee. I used to think hills were the enemy – put there to slow me down and make me agonize in pain – but there’s a popular quote from The Godfather that reminds us to, “keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.” So over these past few months I have really worked to mentally overcome the fear, intimidation, and disdain I once had for hills. I now have a whole new appreciation for hills as I train for a challenging Coeur d’Alene course in 2016.
When I started running and training for the Houston Marathon back in 2006, I feared hills. I wanted nothing to do with hills. Houston is a fairly flat city, although you can find a couple short “easy” hills if you put in the effort to scout them out. I tried to avoid routes with hills like the plague. Why? Because they were hard, intimidating, and would slow me down. It’s amazing how your perception of what actually constitutes a hill, and your willingness (or not) to incorporate them into your routine, can completely change depending on where you live and train.
When I moved back to Central Oregon I had to face the harsh reality that training on hills would be inevitable. Adding insult to injury, I also had to re-adjust to the elevation since Bend is at 3,500 feet above sea level and Houston topped out at 42 feet. If you want flat in my neck of the woods, you pretty much have to run loops along the Deschutes River and around the Old Mill District, or head out East of town on the bike. Or go to the track. There is always the track, although as luck would have it my local track is at the top of – you guessed it – a hill. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about hills when it comes to swimming (although truthfully, whenever I swim it feels like I am swimming uphill).
I think for the most part, hills get a pretty bad rap for several reasons:
One, they slow you down. And who wants to go slower, especially during a race? I remember running the Seattle Marathon a few years ago and getting destroyed by the hills between miles 19 and 23. I hadn’t trained properly and the hills got the best of me. I missed a BQ by only a few minutes. Darn hills.
Two, they hurt. Hills require a lot of effort and exertion. The body has to work hard and heart rate inevitably rises as a result. If you don’t pace yourself properly, they can suck the life from your body. And this isn’t limited to just going uphill. Downhills can also require a lot of effort and exertion, as we often use them to try to make up the time we lost on the last hill, and physically they can be even more punishing on the legs.
Three, where there is one hill there are usually many. Unless you live in a flat city where you consider a hill to be a bridge or overpass, if you are running in a place with hilly terrain you will undoubtedly face a hill during a run or ride.
When I was contemplating doing an Ironman, I looked at almost every course in the North American circuit and obsessed over the elevation profiles. In my mind, I couldn’t imagine doing my first Ironman on a hilly course. That left Arizona, Chattanooga, Texas, and Florida in the front running.
But then something happened. After talking with my coach and several of the athletes I train with, I came to the realization that a hilly course might work to my advantage. I live in a place where training outside means training on hills. If I can ride up to the mountains (a good climb mind you) during the spring and summer months, why wouldn’t I want to do a race that replicates this?
Why not take advantage of these training grounds and choose a course that would reflect the type of terrain I train on daily? If I lived somewhere flat, I could absolutely justify my desire never to run a hilly race. But I have no excuses living in Bend.
I signed up for Coeur d’Alene knowing that I would have to learn to embrace hills and use them to my advantage. Instead of running in the opposite direction screaming whenever I approach a hill (yes, it has happened once or twice) I want to feel confident that I can ride or run up any hill that stands in my way.
Now that I have started to become one with the hills, and have begun incorporating them into my training almost daily, I have reached a point where I no longer fear hills. Just as they have been my worst fear for several reasons in the past, hills can actually become an athlete’s best friend for several reasons:
–> They make you physically stronger. Because your muscles are working hard to overcome gravity, they contract and exert more power than they do running or cycling on flat or downhill terrain. In a sense, it’s like strength training. Yes, it may slow you down temporarily, but in the grand scheme of things it will make you faster as an athlete.
–> What goes up must come down. My favorite thing about hilly terrain is that it switches things up and keeps it interesting. Ascending means descending. Who doesn’t like a little downhill action? Just be sure you train for the downhill too. With gravity working with you, running downhill can do some major destruction to your quads. I learned this a couple days ago and have been slowly nursing my legs back to good health.
–> Hills force you to use different muscles. One of my favorite Marathon courses is the California International Marathon because it is comprised of small rolling hills for the first 20 miles. It actually felt good at times to run uphill, giving my quads a break from all the downhill. If you are using different muscles by running on a variety of terrain, the muscles won’t fatigue as quickly.
–> Mental prep. Psychologically, there is no better feeling than facing a hill with a sense of confidence. If you can conquer one hill, you can conquer them all. For me, training on hills has prepared me for the next hill, and the next. Hills create a mental toughness that you can’t gain anywhere else.
Hills are not always easy or fun, but they can challenge you in multiple ways and ultimately make you a faster and stronger athlete. Who doesn’t want that? In the words of Nelson Mandela, “after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about running hills?
Have you ever avoided a race because of the elevation profile?
What is the hilliest race you have ever done? Are there any hilly races that you would consider doing?