Face it, if you live in a city and you run outside then there is a good chance that you have never really experienced a hill before. Cities are the running equivalent of a grandmother with a too much candy; they spoil us – the roads and pathways are generally in good nick, if you’re lucky you get a bit of asphalt which is nice and springy and most of the time, the biggest gradient you may have to deal with is a raised footbridge over a dual carriageway. Obviously my perception is limited to London and (basically) London is pretty flat – if you have a look at an elevation map of the London marathon – that iconic race which is so damn hard to get into – it is basically flat and a bit downhill in places. If you are content with a couple of laps around the block three times a week and the occasional 5 or 10k in the local park then this isn’t really a problem. But what if you want the hills, or if you’ve entered a race, with a projected finish time somewhere on the quick and flat scale only to discover there is a stonking great hill in the middle of it which is all a bit scary. What advice could I give?
Hill-less bliss caught me out last September and almost knackered my efforts at completing my first half marathon and since then, after discovering a love for muddy punishment I have come to like hills, if fact I now actively seek hills out when planning runs. Fortunately for me I am on the edge of Surrey and this is less of an issue.
There are lots of theories on how to tackle hills, the benefits of hill training have been well documented and if you a) have a nearby hill and b) can be arsed to slog through the, ultimately, tedious routine of running up the hill then jogging back down it again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and so on then prepping for hills is not a problem but what if you cannot be arsed with that routine? What if you just want to run? What can you do?
Principally, find a hill; ideally a couple. Simply adding some hills to your running route is a big start and will in he short-term give you a psychological benefit since you will know what a hill is (as a runner). It doesn’t need to be a big hill, just something – at a push, even a set of steep steps if that’s all you can manage.
Next is technique. I have found that the best approach to tackling hills is the pace/effort calculation. Basically you reduce your pace but maintain the effort level – this technique is deceptively effective; although you may feel that you are taking forever while others power up the slope, when you crest the hill, you will almost automatically increase your pace to what it was before the hill and you will require relatively little recovery time before your breathing is back under control. Oh, there is always a bit of recovery time, although your effort level may be constant you use slightly different muscles when running up hills so don’t be surprised if you are a bit out of breath at the top – especially in race conditions when the crowd and atmosphere make you feel invincible.
Running, like most things, is practice – the more you run up hills, the more your muscles will get used to taking the gradients, which in time means your initial slow hill pace will gradually increase while you effort level stays constant.