Hill Training Without Hills


Experience From - Karl King , Joakim Nilsson , Doug McKeever , Norm Yarger , Ted Moore , Dave Cameron , John Thieme

Karl King

Ian Stevens wrote:

"I need some advice on "hill training without hills". I am planning to do my first ultra in May at the Ice Age Trail 50 mile in Wisconsin and have been told that this is hilly terrain."

Ian, if you are used to the slight ups and downs of the mid west, then the Ice Age course is hilly, being littered with a lot of rolling hills between flat meadows. Someone once listed the climb as being 3,500 feet, but I can't find any data which support that figure. Now, compared to Leadville or Vermont, which have 15,000 feet of climb, the hills on the Ice Age course are small potatoes. One of the bigger hills, Star Hill, is a climb of 120' on a 15% grade. That's a laugher compared to the 3,400 feet of climb at 15% grade on the north side of Hope Pass at Leadville. Nevertheless, many fine runners come to Ice Age and find that the series of small hills can be taken lightly and trash the quads if one insists on running all of them.

There are many ways to train for hills, but given that you don't have any to run near Chicago, you might try...

for the uphills: walk at 3.5 mph on a treadmill set at 15% grade. Start slower and work up to 3.5. Start with 20 minutes and work your way up to 30-45. That is what I did in training for the big uphill at the end of the American River 50 course, and I was delighted with the results. This type of workout was suggested to me by Dana Roueche, who deserves the credit for the idea.

for the downhills: try biking for 15 to 25 miles at a time. Now that it is too cold to bike in Wisconsin, I use a stationary recumbent bike at the the local athletic club. When the trails here clear of snow and ice, drive up to the Ice Age course and run the downhills hard. You may have sore quads for a few days, but the next time you go run the downhills, you'll find that you have much less soreness thereafter.

Joakim Nilsson

Living in Edmonton, Alberta where winter is 4-5 months long and there are few good hills, I spent a fair amount of last winter running stairs to train for my first trail 50k. I found the stairs great for endurance --I live in a 21 floor high rise, and would do several repeats between 20-30 minute bouts on my bicycle wind trainer -- and I also found running down the stairs teaches you to land on your fore foot on steep descents, thus saving your knees and quads. Also, the eccentric contraction of muscle on the downstairs also help prepare you for the fatigue of descending. Personally, I would rather run up and down stairs at three minutes each way than try to do the same number of squats or leg-presses.

Doug McKeever

In response to the ideas about training for hill running, I'd like to offer my one cent's worth.

Karl believes that bicycling is a good way to strengthen the quads for downhill running. That may be true in general for many people, but I'd like to offer up a personal anecdote.

In preparing for the grand slam in 1994 I had done over 300,000' of vert. running on our local mountains. I had developed a good ability to really scamper down the hills (but not up) in the previous years and was ready to do a good time at WS100, maybe around 22:00, I thought. Then in early May I took a twisting fall while descending Mt. St. Helens on skis, twisting my knee pretty badly. During the next three weeks I found that I couldn't run w/o aggravating the knee, so wanting to stay in shape I did all of my training on a road bike. For three weeks prior to WS I didn't run a step. At WS I got to Robinson Flat in an OK time, but then things started to fall apart on the downhills (normally a strength). By the time I dragged out of Foresthill, I was reduced to walking only. I spent 16 hours walking the last 38 miles! To this day I'm convinced that the problem was that my downhill running had failed because I hadn't continued to run downhills in training (or because I hadn't run, period), and the biking, while seeming to help for the uphills, didn't seem to be sufficient for the downhills.

I am not scientific about training (even though I am a scientist professionally), and I know that one cannot overgeneralize from anecdotes. Still, specificity of training is, in my view, the ticket to success.

Norm Yarger

Adding my 2 cents, I find that bicyclists run well up hill, not down hill. Because I am light weight, downhills have never bothered me, and when I ran with bicyclists, I could pull away from them on the downhills and hold my own on the flats, but when we started up hill, it seemed like they actually ran faster than on the flats.

My conclusion, downhill running requires doing downhill running. It's not only a matter of the quads, but also the faster leg turnover, balance, and coordination in foot plants. That's why I suggested Ian pick a health club on the fifth floor there in Chicago and run up to the club and back down again.

Ted Moore

Yes you can simulate hill running with a treadmill--provided the machine will increase elevation. Some club treadmills are sophisticated enough to do interval, flat-to-elevation-to-flat programs. I recommend a 45-60 minute program which you can RUN, becoming somewhat anaerobic on the hills and then can recover aerobically on the flat. The treadmill may adjust the pace according to the elevation you are running to keep the effort level about the same. But I strongly suggest that you power walk on the treadmill for 2 miles + or -, depending on the length of the hills at the race. You can alternate this long hill climb with flat treadmill running which, I believe, has a tendency to expose you to a slight downhill running stress. I try to drink my electrolyte during these training sessions. You can even do a long run on the treadmill, but others may want to use it and boot you off of it. Good luck on your race!

Dave Cameron

When I lived in Detroit and did not have a car, I ran stairs as well. In fact, a friend and I, when training for our first marathon, ran from ground level to the top floor of the tallest building in Detroit (72 stories). It took 10 minutes. I found the carry-over wasn't perfect, but it was close.

John Thieme

Here in very flat Lafayette, Louisiana we often run parking towers to simulate hills. The tallest in our little town in 6 stories which works out to about 0.3 miles of up hill and, obviously, the same in descent. Multiple repeats of a tower or stringing together a run of every parking tower in town is part of our regular training program. You may find that towers which have guards during the work week are open to runners after business hours and on weekends.

It sounds like your long runs, combined with being a youthful 27 should be sufficient. Just remember to start slow. Running negative splits is a wonderful way to experience an ultra.