Need to Build Speed? Try Running Hills

Great article from Running Times Magazine on building speed by training on hills. From experience, it gets the leg turnover going while going down hill…getting your legs used to moving faster. Try it out – and even if it doesn’t help your speed immediately…it is tons of fun! (Remember to allow your arms to go and spin like windmills…this will keep you running fast and balanced so that you don’t fall.)

For those Floridians wondering where to find hills? Options include bridge runs (Linton Blvd in Delray Beach) and/or parks and former landfills-turned-parks (Okeeheelee Park in West Palm Beach, and Dyer Park in Palm Beach Gardens west).

It’s the worst-kept secret in running: If you want to improve strength and speed, run hills.

Recently, I did a trail run in Seattle with Tony Young, the world record-holder in the mile for men age 45–49 (4:16.09). Tony stopped at a point where the trail split, and he pointed up one fork, a 300m woodchip incline.

“See this hill?” said Tony. “If I beat you for the masters cross country title in December, this hill will be the reason why.”

Tony’s faith in the power of hills has precedent. In the 1960s, New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard used hill training to propel his country’s distance runners to international acclaim. Sebastian Coe relied on hills for the strength that netted him 11 indoor and outdoor world records in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And the slopes of the Great Rift Valley have lifted Kenyans to domination of the world distance scene for decades.

So why don’t more runners make hills a centerpiece of their training?

Simply put, most runners don’t understand how to train on hills. We pick hills that are too long or too steep. We run them too fast. We allow too little time afterward to recover. The result is a poor training effect at best, injury and burnout at worst.

Before we charge willy-nilly up the nearest mountain trail, we need to understand the training adaptations we’re after and the best way to achieve them.

WHY DOES HILL TRAINING WORK?

A weight lifter looking to improve his maximum bench press doesn’t add lighter-weight reps to his workout. He doesn’t do his reps more quickly. Instead, he increases the weight on the bar, thereby increasing the force required to complete his reps.

It’s the same with running. If we want to get stronger and faster, we must increase the force requirements of our workout. Tempo runs, time trials and fast reps on the track are good, but they don’t generate maximum force. Hills do.

“Running up hills forces the knees to lift higher, one of the most desirable developments for any runner, because this governs stride speed and length,” wrote Lydiard (with Garth Gilmour) in his book Running With Lydiard. “It also develops the muscle fibers, increasing power.”

In fact, we can target all three types of muscle fiber (a “fiber” is what we call a muscle cell) with hill training: slow-twitch (Type I), intermediate fast-twitch (Type IIa) and fast-twitch (Type IIx). Slow-twitch produces the least force of the fiber types, but it works aerobically and takes a long time to fatigue, making it perfect for endurance activities. Intermediate fibers produce more force than slow-twitch, creating the long, powerful strides associated with middle-distance running. Fast-twitch fibers produce the most force of all, but they function anaerobically and are useful only for short bursts.

HOW DO WE TRAIN ON HILLS?

When I attended La Canada High School in the 1970s, we had one of the best middle-distance programs in Southern California. One year, our school of 1,500 students boasted nine runners who could break 2:00 for the 880. Our secret? Coach Pat Logan employed a regimen of long hill runs for endurance, long hill reps for strength and short hill reps for speed.

When we run, we recruit our muscle fibers in a “ladder.” We use slow-twitch fiber first, add intermediate fiber as the required force increases, and recruit fast-twitch fiber when our force requirement is greatest (e.g., sprinting up a steep hill).

Once we know how the ladder works, we can design hill workouts that target each type of muscle fiber and train those fiber types to work together more effectively.

Full article here.

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