If you wish to improve your running speed and slash down your personal best timings, make hill training a regular part of your running routine. This is according to Ben Pulham, 35, former professional triathlete from New Zealand, and now the founder and coach of Coached, a boutique fitness company specialising in helping runners and triathletes to reach their fitness goals.
Said Ben, “Like I always say, in its simplest form there are only two ways to run faster: To spin your legs quicker or to take a longer stride. By running hills, you are lugging your weight up and down the hills. This helps you to build strength and the outcome of gaining strength is that you put more power through the ground when run, and you will end up with a longer stride.”
He added, “It is not really something that you think about, that you need to develop a longer stride. It’s also not something that happens over hills in one day, but if you train on the hills for weeks, months and years, then you get very strong. And if your stride length gets longer as a result of that, and your cadence is the same, what happens? You get faster.”
Hills need not be fast training
At the same time, Ben pointed out that unlike speed training where you are simply smashing your body all the time, hill training need not be fast training. He said “It is a good way to develop speed without the stress of high intensity training. It is less hard on the body and you can vary intensity of the hills according to easy, steady or moderately hard heart rate zones, depending on where you are in the year and what your goals and key races are.”
Continued Ben, “People who run marathons are generally not limited by their speed. They can run fast enough to run any time they like, but they just cannot sustain their speed. Most people, if I put them into a 100 metre sprint, they can actually run the speed that is required to do a sub 3-hour marathon, but they cannot run a sub 3-hour marathon because they cannot sustain the speed for the whole 42.195km. That is the result of a lack of speed endurance, and one way to train that, to get stronger and more resilient, is to train hills. Hills fatigue your body at a lower rate than pure speed training and develop strength.”
Three hill sessions per week for Coached runners
Runners under the Coached online programmes would be prescribed hill training for a minimum of three times a week. Said Ben, “This is the single best way to make you faster without putting real stress on the body through high intensity interval training. Most people are under too much stress from their work and social life, and then they are training too hard as well. Hills are a good way to limit the stress that you are placing on the body. They are also a form of stress, but they are a good option as long as the intensity is kept low.”
Many runners pile on the hills and mileage too fast
Most people who simply incorporate a hill training regime to their training may wind up injured according to Ben, because they are piling on the mileage too fast. Explained Ben, “They run the hills too fast and they do too many repetitions before their bodies are conditioned to handle them. Everything in training is progressive. Start easy and build the intensity as your body becomes conditioned to handle it.”
Added Ben, “To incorporate hills, if you have never done it before, I suggest to start light and find a course with a few hills, running it at your easy or steady heart rate zones. Over weeks and months, your intensity should not change but you will find yourself get faster at the same effort. That is what you want to see.”
Alternatives to hill training
But if you live in a flat area where there are no hills nearby, Ben has alternatives. He said, “Treadmills are a good option if you have access to one; they have a gradient function or a hill function that you can use. You can also do stairs; Singapore is not lacking in stairs so that is a great choice.”
He added, “Other strength based functional exercises such as walking lunges and squats are a great alternative too. In fact these are what we often prescribe for long run sessions for our Coached athletes.”
Also you can try running with a weight vest too, if you want to build strength. Said Ben, “I used to run with a 5kg weight vest. Putting something over your shoulders to carry when running is similar to what happens when you get fat and put on weight. That is the safest way to run with extra weight.”
Added the coach, “But running with ankle weights or holding free weights in your hands is not advisable though – doing that changes your running biomechanics and will lead you down the path to injury.”
Hills are speed work in disguise
But hills are still the best solution though, if you want to run faster. Said Ben, “I’ll leave you with my favourite quote: Hills are speed work in disguise. It’s from marathoner Frank Shorter, who won the 1972 Olympics Marathon. The reason, as I had mentioned earlier, is that you get strong and your stride length gets longer and you are running faster. It is still a solid session, but you have your heart rate under control and you are not forcing yourself to run all-out.”
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