Some runners avoid hills because they can cause injuries and they're, well, hard. Time to reconsider.
By Amby Burfoot, RUNNER'S WORLD
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 "South Mountain," so I soon found my noontime runs steering up and over the mountain several times a week. A month later, I noticed that I was feeling stronger, quicker, and more light-footed on all my runs. Yes, the hills are alive with training benefits.
I am not the first to discover this. East Africans have been traipsing up and down the steep slopes of the Great Rift Valley for millennia, and in the last half-century have rewritten the distance-running record books. Today, they run the hills harder than ever. I experienced this first-hand on a 1998 trip to Kenya. One morning, I joined a handful of marathoners who were being coached by Dr. Gabriele Rosa as they tackled the infamous Fluorspar Hill (40 miles east of Eldoret) that rises nearly 4,000 feet in 13 miles.
Truth in editorial: I managed to hang on for only 10 minutes before bailing out. I hopped into Rosa's Jeep to watch the rest of the impressive workout, which ended 82 minutes after it started. Rosa likes his marathon runners to do strenuous hill running every 10 days during their marathon buildup. "Marathon running uses a lot of quadriceps muscle fibers, and this is the best way to build the quadriceps," Rosa told me recently. "In Italy, we use the gym also. But the Kenyans do not have any gyms, so we run hills."
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 New Zealand, including Peter Snell (three-time Olympic gold medalist), suddenly began winning a disproportionate number of big races. Their successes were based on the training philosophy of Arthur Lydiard, a marathoner-turned-coach. Lydiard broke from the generation of coaches before him who believed mostly in interval training. Who could blame them? They had just lived through the 1950s when runners like Roger Bannister and Emil Zatopek used mind-bending interval workouts to help them shatter the world records of that era.
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 Lydiard Way, coauthored by Garth Gilmour. In its ideal form, Lydiard's hill training takes place on a two-mile layout that includes a steepish uphill of 300 to 400 meters, a not-so-steep downhill of about 800 meters, and relatively flat stretches of 800 to 1,000 meters at the top and bottom. You begin by running the uphill stretch, in Lydiard's words, "springing up on your toes, not running but bouncing. This gives you muscular development and flexibility."
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 Auckland, where the downhill was approximately 800 meters, it is said that Peter Snell once ran a 1:48 and regularly hit 1:50.
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 Japan, Hashizume was inspired by Frank Shorter's victories in the Fukuoka Marathon, and began reading every running book he could find. Running The Lydiard Way was "the first book I read in English," he says. He was drawn to it because he liked how Lydiard "used science as the basis of his training programs."
Hashizume traveled to Auckland to run the infamous 22-mile Waitakere Mountains course that once reduced Snell to tears. He also tackled the original hill circuit. "It was steeper than I expected," says Hashizume, who now lives in the Twin Cities and maintains a Web site that promotes Lydiard's training methods (fivecircles.org).
While New Zealand runners no longer rule the track, they have continued to excel on hills. A native of Wellington, Derek Froude followed Lydiard's principles with zeal. He ran a 2:11 marathon, and in 1990 became the first person to break 60 minutes in the Mount Washington road race. Froude clocked 59:17 for the 7.6-mile course with "only one hill," as participants like to say.
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 Mount Washington road in 56:41, nearly two minutes faster than Kihara's old record. That's roughly the equivalent of someone taking four minutes off the marathon world record. Wyatt, also originally from Wellington, has won four World Mountain Running Championships in recent years, and deserves to be called the greatest hill runner of all time. When you bear a mantle like that, you get asked only one question: What's your secret? "I think it's just that I love the mountainous trails and have been running hills since I was 13," says Wyatt, 32. "I seem to get stronger every year."
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 Mammoth Lakes [California], but we even use undulating hills when they train in San Diego," says Vigil. "A quarter mile up, and a quarter mile down."
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.