by Dick Vincent
With winter comes the desire to stay warm and yet build a base. It is a perfect time to get aerobic miles and build endurance that will serve as a spring board later in the season when it is time for another phase of our long range training plan. A solid aerobic base is important to success later in the year. However, without a certain amount of quality during this phase, your body will be shocked when suddenly it is introduced to more intense running later on down the training cycle. That shock can lead to unnecessary soreness and lost training days at best. At worst it can leave you injured and well behind the training curve for a spring goal race. Therefore it is important to do just enough of it so that your body doesn’t lose that neuro-muscular connection that keeps us coordinated and fluid.
Here is the conundrum: We need some faster running but with the cold, the slippery conditions, and the extra clothing it is difficult to execute the intensity runs without adding in a large risk of injury. Just facing the workouts in these conditions can be daunting even if it all goes well.
One answer to this is hill work. I won’t go into all of the physiological benefits in detail in this article, but let me give some big benefits of what hills can do for you at this period of training. Hills help develop power and speed. In addition, when we run hills our stride is more compact so without that longer range of motion in our gait we are less at risk of injury if we slip. Because we are going uphill our speed is slower and slipping at a slower speed reduces that risk even more. Being all bundled up also makes a longer stride on flats more difficult to attain as we have to stretch the fibers of the garment(s) that add huge resistance. With a shorter stride on the hills, that resistance is less. It makes the intense running more comfortable. Not that resistance is a bad thing, but we already are overcoming enough obstacles and the hills themselves give us more than enough resistance. Another benefit of running hills is that most of us tend to fall into a more natural gait and don’t over-stride as much. There isn’t a lot of heel striking going on during an uphill push. This is a perfect time to concentrate on your stride, on lifting you quads a bit more and also making sure that back foot gets off the ground. A lazy trail leg makes the front foot float and come down too far in front. By monitoring and concentrating on your form you may not get to the top of the hill as quickly, but you will be getting more benefit both at the moment and down the line when that good form will come more naturally. The effort will still be there so the benefits will be too.
So now that the idea is seeded, let’s talk about what to do. Let’s say that one of your staples of spring track are 400s. Don’t necessarily run an actual 400 up a hill, but run up a hill at the intensity and time duration you would on a track. If you perform your 400s at 6 min pace (90 seconds per 400) then run up a hill for 90 seconds. Turn around and jog slowly back to the beginning. Repeat as necessary. Do the same for 800s or whatever distance you are trying to mimic.
If you are running cruise intervals (workouts slightly faster than Lactic Threshold), find a long hill. Run up it for 4-5 minutes then turn around and jog down for a minute or so then turn around and go back up for 4-5 minutes. If you run out of hill then you can do these in sets taking a shorter break between reps and a long break between sets of reps).
You don’t have to do these intense workouts as often as you would in your competitive phase of training. You can rotate them in every 10 days or so. 2-3 a month should be sufficient to maintain the neuro-muscular connections. Then when you move into a hill phase of training or onto the track, you will adapt more quickly and without days lost to prolonged soreness.
Another advantage of hills is that often the streets are better maintained with plowing, dirt, salt, so it is easier to find a clear place to do your reps. I used to do hill reps in Kingston in the winter. Atop Quarry Street Hill there was an elementary school. The road crews kept the road conditions in great condition and there was little traffic outside of school hours. We don’t all have such a venue at our disposal but be resourceful and search out a place. Possibly you have to drive to your hill. Meet a group of friends, wear reflective gear, and get at it. I guarantee that you will be warm and most of all, invigorated through some of the most difficult months.