There are few sights in all of sports that are more uncomfortable for spectators to watch than a distance runner struggling with a case of the “rubber legs” at the conclusion of a race. Consequently, there are few experiences in all of sports that are more humiliating for athletes to endure than a case of the “rubber legs” at the conclusion of a race. I was once that individual, receiving sympathetic encouragement from complete strangers and barely hanging on to finish my first marathon. However, by incorporating hill repeats into my training schedule, I ultimately learned how to prevent these finish line breakdowns.
After I helplessly inched my way to the Grandma’s Marathon finish line back in 2001 on wobbled knees and behind a stream of passing competitors, I was frustrated and confused. I had put in my months of training miles and felt physically and mentally prepared, but the 500-pound gorilla that hopped on my back around mile 25 did not seem to care as he rode me through 26.2. However, the harsh reality that I experienced during that first marathon only made me more determined to improve my overall performance. And networking with veteran runners opened my mind to hill training and the benefits it serves for runners of all distances and abilities.
More than any kind of training, hills simulate the physical fatigue that often accompanies the final stretch of a race. Soon, as I learned to practice smart, more efficient running with hill repeats, I became one step closer to overcoming this obstacle. Additionally, hill training and repeats increase anaerobic threshold to better process lactic acid accumulation in the muscles during the latter parts of a race. By delaying the onset of this sometimes debilitating sensation, my focus more thoroughly remained on form, breathing, and the other priorities of distance running.
After recognizing and understanding the reasons behind hill training, I developed what has become my standard approach for this practice. A 15 to 20 minute warm-up jog leads me to the base of my hill. Ideally, the length of the incline will be anywhere between 150 and 200 meters to balance the development of stamina with the desired strength. Maintaining a vertical posture and an individualized 5K race pace, I focus my eye line forward and not down during each repetition up the hill. Then, just as a strong knee drive and short quick strides propel me to the summit, a relaxed, extended stride back to the base completes one repetition. Three to five repeats were a suitable workout to initially begin my development, but with consistent practice I now regularly triple that range once per week.
Hill training represents a workout that has challenged my physical and mental commitment to running. However, the sense of pride that has accompanied every finish since that first marathon has been worth the effort and sacrifice.