Head for the hills to get a competitive edge
Because of the wet weather over the past couple of weeks, I have done a lot of running on the road as the grass and trails are too slippy. My favourite terrain to run on is grass as it is easier on the body, but, I must say, I have enjoyed taking in a few hilly runs around Phoenix Park in Dublin.
During my competitive years, I did all of my training up and down the hills at home in Co Cavan. From a very young age, I was used to this type of running and it gave me a great base which helped me during my athletics career. One session sticks out, which comprised eight three-minute sustained efforts up and down hills. I also did a lot of 80m and 100m sprints up and down hills. As many of the races I ran were on relatively flat surfaces, psychologically I felt I had an advantage over my competitors because I was strong from all the hill training.
Hills build good leg strength; increases stride turnover; give a great cardiovascular workout; help with your running economy; and bring you to a new level of performance. Many people shy away from hills, thinking they are too much work, but if you learn to run on them with good technique, they won't feel so difficult.
Whenever you plan to run hills of any kind, always take time to warm up on flat terrain before heading up an incline. It gives your muscles time to warm up and gets your blood flowing, reducing your odds of overstretching. If you generally run on flat surfaces, introduce some hills gradually into your running programme.
Like speed work, it takes time for the body to adapt and the important thing is to maintain good running mechanics. Running up and down hills is a skill in itself; here are a few pointers to help you on your way.
Most runners' natural reaction when they start running up a hill is to lean into it, usually by bending forward at the waist. This overworks your hamstrings, putting pressure on your lower back, plus when you hunch over you restrict your oxygen supply. Lean your whole body forward as one unit from your ankles, bring your hands close to your body and swing them in an upward motion from your hips to your chin, like you are punching yourself in the face.
Think of your upper body getting you up the hill and keep your lower legs as relaxed as possible to ensure you don't go up on your toes and overwork your calf and foot muscles. Look straight ahead and attack the hill but, at the same time, judge your pace so that you are able to maintain your rhythm to the top.
The key to comfortable, smooth downhill running is knowing how to relax, physically and mentally. Having tense muscles increases the impact on your knees and quads.
Learning to mentally relax while running downhill is really the most difficult aspect, because, for many people, it's when they run their fastest speeds.
It is important that you neutralise the impact on the downhill, because you will be hitting the ground with a lot more force. Don't pull your shoulders back as this puts more curvature into your lower back, increases pressure on your spine and throws your legs too far forward, which makes you land hard on your heels. Focus on keeping your feet landing underneath you, keeping your upper body ahead of your foot strike and relax your ankles, calves and lower legs.
In many ways, life is hilly, constantly putting barriers in our way but, when we overcome them, we are much stronger people. If you keep running up those hills, you will be a much stronger runner and there will be a fabulous view when you get to the top.