Hill Workouts – Weekly Recap – 6.28.20

Happy belated Fourth of July!  While my boys and I don’t generally go all out for this summer holiday, I do love having some time off work.  I started off the week with an extra weekend day, because I took a day off for the boys’ birthday last week.  I didn’t plan for it to fall on the same week as the holiday, but I had zero regrets about having a 3 day work week!  I slept in a little later, and then went out to the powerlines for my second hill workout.  As nervous as I was about incorporating focused hill workouts into my running program, I have actually been really enjoying them.

In fact, I want to talk about my experience with these workouts later on, because I think every runner should be utilizing them in their training at some point.  There’s just so many benefits, and the views from the top of a hill as the sun comes up cannot be beat.

Related Post: Transitioning to Trail Running

Tuesday through Thursday were pretty normal days for the boys and I. My husband and I worked, and our kiddo enjoyed his birthday presents during the day. The boys went down to the pool once or twice in the afternoon, which gave me a nice opportunity to work in silence. I’m really grateful for the fact that my husband has a very flexible work schedule, because working from home with a 7 year old on summer break can be somewhat difficult. Especially when we aren’t able to see other kids his age more frequently.

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On Thursday, I was able to meet up with my cousin for a nice morning run, which I always enjoy.  And then Friday, I was off for the holiday.  We didn’t do anything too exciting this weekend since COVID is really making its presence known here in Texas.  I went on a longer run in the morning, and then did a Hero WOD in honor of a CrossFit friend from my previous box.  I had the blessing of coaching this sweet man for a handful of half-marathons and a Spartan race before he passed away last year.  I talk more about it in the WODs recap from this week, but it was a very special workout for me.

Saturday was my longest trail run since starting my 50 miler training plan.  Right before I started, I ran an 18 mile virtual trail race that had less elevation change.  17 miles on steeper, technical trails was fairly difficult, but I am really happy that I felt great until the last four miles.  Then I felt my soul quickly leave my body.  Saturday afternoon, after a good long nap, my son and I played a round of monopoly.  We ordered Thai food for the family and enjoyed a relaxing night in.  Not a particularly exciting weekend, but after last weekends fun on the lake, we all benefitted from having a little extra downtime.

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I mentioned briefly that I’ve been enjoying the hill workouts that have been programmed in my ultra-marathon training, and as a late adopter I really want to share why I think every runner should consider incorporating them into their training plans.

Running Hill Workouts

The last two weeks I have had focused hill workouts programmed into my ultra-marathon training.  Now, honestly, as a marathon runner, I probably should have been tackling hill workouts years ago.  Even for runners who are training for mostly flat races, hill workouts can have more benefits than a COVID relief package.  And in full disclosure, when I ran the Waco marathon a couple of years ago, the unexpected hills in the last 13 miles kicked my butt.  So I should have learned my lesson and started incorporating them a long time ago.

But I’m a stubborn woman, and my hometown had exactly two hills in the entire city, so I did not.  

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Thankfully, now that I am training for a somewhat hilly trail race, I’ve had the external motivation to learn how to get up a hill without feeling like an 86 year old chain smoker. As reluctant as I was to incorporate hill workouts into my previous training cycles, in just two weeks I’ve found that these workouts have actually been somewhat fun and very beneficial. It does help that I’m now living in a much hillier area, and my options for these workouts are very scenic. But even if you are living in an area that is as flat as 2 day old Coke, you can still reap the benefits of hill work with a little creativity.

Today I want to share why every runner can benefit from these kinds of workouts, different ways to approach them, and how to work them into your training even if your current location is elevationally challenged.

The Benefits of Hill Workouts

I’d heard for years that hill workouts are really speed workouts in disguise, but I’m not a fan of disguises, so I didn’t listen.  However, the concept is completely accurate.  There are two purposes of speed workouts; build lower body muscle to help increase power, and increasing aerobic capacity.  Both of these things can help you run faster, longer, and with less perceived effort.  Not surprisingly, hill workouts achieve very similar results as speed work.

Running at an incline certainly isn’t easy, and it forces the runner to push off the ground harder and pull their leg up higher than running on flat land.  Both of these actions stimulate large muscle groups in the legs, hips, core, and glutes, increasing strength in a way running miles and miles on the road won’t achieve.  The increased force and exertion are what makes hill workouts tough and beneficial.  Run up one hill at a decent pace, and I guarantee you’ll body will be sore in vastly different ways than after a typical morning run.

Running uphill engages slow, intermediate, and fast twitch muscle fibers, which helps runners build power.  Again, more power means more speed with less perceived effort.  It can also improve running economy, since that extra lift at the knee helps the body learn how to better utilize and engage stride speed and length.  Finally, running hard in any manner (around a track or up a hill) teaches the body how to oxygenate the muscles of the body more efficiently, improving aerobic capacity.  All this to say, if you want to be a stronger runner, hill workouts can absolutely help you reach your goals.

How to Run Hill Workouts

Well, the most simple way to run a hill workout is to find a hill that is accessible, do a 1-2 mile easy warm up, and then run up that sucker at a challenging but sustainable pace, then turn back around and run back down at an easy pace. Repeat anywhere from 3-7 depending on your fitness, goals, and the distance of your hill. Easy peasy. But, there are some other ways to approach hill workouts that are slightly more structured as well.

The first is to have structured distances that you repeat with recoveries in between. Sprints can be as short as 100m, and long hill repeats should fall between half to a full mile (if you have access to a one mile hill). Again, depending on your fitness, goals, and the distance of the hill you choose, you can determine how many repeats you want to tackle. Generally, runners program a higher number of repeats for shorter distances, and fewer for longer. Makes sense, right?

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You can also swap out time for distance if you prefer to focus a little more on effort than exact distance covered.  The concept of the repeat is the same; pick a time between 1-10 minutes to run uphill at a challenging pace, turn around and run down at an easy pace.

If you want a little more variety, you can also incorporate some ladder work.  Thankfully, I am not referring to the kind you use to get stuck on your roof while hanging Christmas lights.  No, the kind where you extend the distance of every set instead of running the same distance multiple times.  So, you might run a 200m uphill, then recover, run 400m uphill, then recovery, run 800m uphill, then recover, run 1000m uphill, then recover, etc.  You can also structure the workout in reverse where you run the longest and hardest distance first, and then decrease every set.  Finally, you can increase every set up to a specified distance and then work your way back down with the same interval structure in reverse.

Form-wise you will want to focus on driving your knees upward vertically and shortening your stride. Instead of relying on your calves to push you uphill, recruit your hamstrings and glutes, which will give you more power since they are larger muscle groups. If you are planning on running a race where you are likely to power hike (like a technical ultra-marathon), try to find hills that will allow you a combination of both running and uphill power hiking.

Something important to touch on is the fact that running back downhill may or may not be considered recovery depending on the degree of incline of the hill.  A lot of runners are surprised to learn that running down a steep hill can actually be harder on the body than running uphill, since you are essentially fighting gravity and there’s a good amount of force and pounding.  If you are running repeats or sets on a fairly steep hill that requires you slam on the breaks when you come back down, you should probably consider throwing in a quarter or half mile recovery on a flat road in between repeats, if you can.

Hills in Flat Areas

If you don’t live conveniently close to runable hills, don’t feel like you have to miss out on all the fun. There are a few options you can utilize. The most obvious is using a treadmill and varying the incline to mimic running uphill. Treadmill running may not be as scenic or exciting as running outside, but it does have the benefit of being a little easier to plan (it’s hard to find a hill that is exactly 1000m in length), and recovery can happen on a flat surface very easily. Unfortunately, most treadmills in commercial gyms don’t allow you to practice downhill running, and treadmills that do allow for this can get pretty pricey.

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You can also look for something like a protected walking lane on an uphill bridge, or even multi-level empty parking garages can be a great option.  Running up the ramps can be challenging and effective.  I’ve had some running clients who trained for very hilly courses utilizing a combination of running flat and then up several flights of stairs to work on building the muscle needed for walking up very steep inclines.  This can be accomplished by finding an outdoor source of stairs (like a stadium) and running 1-2 miles, and then running or walking up the stairs for a few repeats; treadmills and stair-steppers can also be alternated this way if you have access to both.

Hopefully this encourages you to give hill workouts a shot.  I know that after just two weeks, I have seen serious improvements in my downhill form, my capacity for pushing harder on the uphills during my regular runs, and feeling stronger overall.  While I was hesitant to incorporate hill work into my regular running routine, I’m pretty confident these workouts are going to be a staple in my training plans moving forward.

This Weeks Workouts

Total Miles: 57
Total Workouts: 4
50 Mile Training, Week 6
How the Runs Felt
Continuing to build my mileage, and keeping up with my hill and pace work simultaneously has been rough!  But also fun.  Sunday was an easy day on the roads, since my husband had a work appointment that limited the amount of time I had available.  I took Monday off work for the boys birthday weekend, which meant I was able to sleep in a little before a tough hill workout.  I went back out to the powerlines and did 6 miles of repeats after a 2 mile warm up.  I logged just over 1200 ft of elevation gain in those 6 miles, and felt really strong for the entire workout.  I noticed that I was able to run a little more of the downhills than the previous week, and felt more confident.

I ran the trails near our home on Wednesday morning, and had a nice easy morning.  Thursday, I met up with my cousin at the Leon Creek Greenway for some steady miles.  She had a recent COVID exposure, and had to stay quarantined until she got her negative results, so we had a little celebratory run together on some flat pavement.  I’m feeling very happy with the fact that I’m still able to hold an 8:15 pace and have a conversation.  I scheduled my longest run of the week for Friday, since I had the day off for the 4th of July.  Twelve miles out on the technical trails was the perfect, but hard, start to a three day weekend.

Only having to work three days this week was really nice, and gave me a good amount of time to recover. I took a little nap on Friday after the Hero WOD, and I think my legs definitely needed some extra recovery after the workouts programmed this week.

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Saturday, I made sure to get myself up early and hit the trails as fast as possible.  17 miles took just under 3.5 hours, which is a real long time for me to be running around.  I ran a couple of loops at the wilderness park by our home, which are fairly technical.  I noticed that my pace was slightly faster than most of my previous runs out there, and I think it has a lot to do with these hill workouts and how much more comfortable I feel moving a little faster on more technical trails.  I’m learning ya’ll!

I had to take a comical amount of gear with me for this run since I didn’t want to come back home for fuel.  In addition to my hydration bladder (which was immensely useful for this run), I filled a 20oz bottle with 3 scoops of Cola flavored tailwind, and took an extra two scoops with me in a popsicle pouch.  I found a pack of these reusable pouches that are designed to make homemade popsicles, and it’s been really convenient for taking extra liquid calories with me.  I refilled my bottle at about mile 12, and I was really thankful to have the extra tailwind on hand to get me through the last 4 miles.

Related Post: Summer Runner Gear Essentials

I also carried one HoneyStinger gummy and a HoneyStinger gel as fuel backup just in case. I ended up eating only the chew, but I’d rather have extra fuel than not enough, especially on trails. Additionally, I took my BodyGlide since I knew it was going to be an extra hot day, which means even more opportunity for chaffing. One packet of Liquid I.V. also came along to pour into my bottle for the short walk home. Thankfully, everything fit pretty perfectly in my VaporHowe2 12L, which I have been loving!

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I’ve been using Nuun Hydration tabs after my shorter runs, and Liquid I.V. after any double digit runs.  Staying on top of my electrolytes has helped me to feel a little less dead after tough workouts in the heat and humidity that has firmly planted itself in South Texas.

Related Post: Complete Guide to Running Fuel

Summer running isn’t easy, but I’m already looking forward to feeling strong once Fall rolls around.

What I’ve Been Listening To
I recently published a post with my favorite 20 podcasts for long runs, so if you’re looking for some great recommendations be sure to take a peak.  This week I’ve continued by binge of Uncovered, and haven’t been disappointed.  I also started listening to some seasons of American Scandal.  I wasn’t initially interested, but honestly Wondry just knows how to do a podcast.  I started out with the Hare Krishna murders, and I’m liking the 4-6 episode seasons.  It covers a story in really great detail, but it doesn’t feel dragged out.  I’ve definitely been on quite the investigative journalism kick lately.

How the WODs felt
After my hill workout on Monday, I was pretty worn out so I decided to just keep things reasonable with a home workout. It was still pretty tough, but it was nice to stay home. Wednesday’s workout look fairly easy on paper, but it really kicked my butt. Those thrusters were just killer, but I got through it. My lifts still aren’t as heavy as they used to be, but for now I’m focusing on staying consistent and for now that’s good enough.

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Friday’s workout was very special. It was a Hero WOD dedicated to Doug Commons, a previous running client that I met through my old CrossFit box. He started CrossFit after having a serious heart attack, where he was pronounced dead for a significant period of time before being revived. So every 4th of July, our box celebrated his second chance at life with a special workout. Doug passed away in 2019, and it was such a loss to our community. I would have loved to have done the workout with everyone else in his honor, but it was still really special to complete the workout on Friday. Knowing Doug was a blessing, and it was an honor to honor his memory.

What Went Well
The hill workouts have been tough, but they are definitely keeping me engaged in training.  I feel like my technique and footing is getting better every week, since I’m tripping a little less and can actually look up every now and again.  And it felt AMAZING to have two days off work to sleep in instead of waking up 5am.

What Went Shitty
As much as I love sleeping in, getting on the trails a little later in the morning also means a lot more sun.  I could definitely tell that my body is feeling a little crispier than usual, and even though I’m really good about wearing sunscreen, it’s still just brutal.

Plans to Improve Next Week  
Next week, I’m looking forward to a little more recovery, and a little less sun.

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