How to Practice Hill Running When You Have No Hills

Mimic the intensity to train your body for what’s to come.

stair climbing

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Sure, living and training where big climbs abound would be ideal. If you don’t have that type of terrain, there are some things you can do.

While you may not be able to replicate the exact vertical gain of these races, you can mimic the intensity to simulate it. Our bodies perceive exertion based on things like heart rate and breathing rate, so whether it’s a run that is straight uphill or a fast track workout, we can simulate that hard effort.

Simulating these challenging races will require doing a portion of your training at the upper limits of your aerobic capacity and crossing into your anaerobic threshold. Stated simply, aerobic capacity refers to the body’s ability to exercise and consume adequate amounts of oxygen to meet the demands of working muscles. (You typically feel comfortable while exercising in this zone.)

As exercise intensity increases, your breathing and heart rate increase as you try to keep up with the oxygen demands of the body. Anaerobic threshold is that point in the workout where the body begins producing an abundance of lactic acid because not enough oxygen is present for working muscles. You may have experienced this phenomenon during a speed workout or during that final sprint to the finish line in a 5K.

You will want to keep your endurance training going on the trails while incorporating intensity into the mix. To minimize fatigue and injury risk, add harder efforts gradually. Start by adding one intense workout a week, and after an adjustment period of several weeks, add a second intense workout to your week. Look for any signs of overtraining: prolonged muscle soreness, fatigue, higher heart rate than normal, inability to sleep, or mental burnout.

The overall goal is a mix of endurance training and intense workouts throughout your training cycle, with at least one day a week off for rest and recovery. Here are some suggestions that will get you mentally and physically ready for an uphill race.

Have Perspective

Attitude is important in any race, but especially when you know going in that you will encounter challenging situations. Entering an event of this nature requires a certain amount of mental toughness and realistic expectations, so keeping things in perspective will help. Focusing on the experience itself will be vital.

Take Baby Steps

Begin this new adventure by finding races with limited vertical climbing at first and see how you fare. Then, gradually increase the difficulty of subsequent races. In other words, find the “easiest” trail race that appeals to you so you can get your bearings. This will allow you to adjust to greater challenges down the road.

Improve Running Form

Some runners are natural hill climbers—regardless of where they live and train—and can scale any incline with a surprising amount of ease. Runners with a short stride, a rapid leg turnover rate, and erect posture tend to do well on hills. If this is not your natural way of running, work on improving your form to closely resemble this model.

Perfect Climbing Form

When climbing, pump your arms and your legs will follow. Keep your head up and eyes forward. And try this drill to figure out if your cadence is fast enough: Count the number of times your feet hit the ground within one minute while running. (It is often easier to count your steps for 15 or 30 seconds, and multiply by four or two, respectively.) The goal is 180 steps or more in one minute. If you are below this target number, Coach Jenny Hadfield has a great way to correct that over-striding.

Add Speedwork

Try to do this once a week. If you are new to speed, start by incorporating surges during a tempo run or on the track. For surges, try running hard for three minutes and easy for one minute. For speedwork on the track, try running a 1200 (three laps) at a hard pace, jog a 200 (half a lap) for recovery, then immediately do a 400 (one lap) at a hard pace. After three to four minutes of recovery, repeat. Gradually increase the number of sets you do.

Include Stairs and Inclines

An easy trick is to set a treadmill to 12 to 15 percent and run short bursts at this level. Some gyms have climbing machines, too, which will work both your arms and legs. Running stairs or stadium bleachers (a great workout whether you’re training for a hilly race or not) is another way to up the intensity and simulate climbing. Since you don’t have any hills around, you can search out overpasses or bridges in your area and do repeats. Always warm up first by running two to five kilometres easy, then tackle your “hill.” Start with two to three repeats, and build from there. (Run some of the downhill portion; it’s not all about the up.)

Try HIIT Training

Do a high-intensity interval class or stream a home workout. This type of training should be an intense, high heart-rate workout that incorporates short bursts of running with other kinds of cardio and strength movements.

Don’t Skip Strength Training

Add weight training to build muscular strength and stamina, targeting your calf muscles, gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps.

Focus on Core Work

Maintaining good running posture will help minimize fatigue, so work on abdominal and back strength. Core exercises can be done daily, or try yoga or Pilates one to two times a week.

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