Climbing to Great Winter Fitness

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

It’s 2016 and that means it’s time to live up to your New Year’s Resolution to have a great year of training and tackle more hills. What’s that, you don’t remember making a resolution to run more hills? It’s a good thing I’m here to refresh your memory! At our adult running camps when we tell people they should spend more time running hills the response is usually a somewhat shameful sigh of acknowledgement. Everyone knows that running hills is good for you, but so many of us still avoid them like the plague. The winter is a perfect time to run more hills to boost your fitness and running economy heading into the spring.

Hill Training

Unless you’re racing a full or half marathon, the winter, with a lack of racing opportunities, can be a difficult time to know what you should be doing in your training. The winter is the time of the year to focus on putting in base building miles that will set the stage for success in spring and summer races. Hills are a great way to mix up the monotony of running long and easy every day without sacrificing the purpose of the base building phase. Additionally, with hills you will see good benefits simply by doing a couple of hilly runs a week where you focus on running a little bit harder up each hill you come to. And what are those benefits?

Think of hill running as nature’s weight room for distance runners. Hill training builds strength in the legs that improves fitness and prepares the muscles and the connective tissues for harder workouts later in a training program. Running uphill increases the demand on your leg muscles, more so than running on flat ground, in a way that increases muscular recruitment that improves running efficiency. Uphill running improves running efficiency by improving muscle recruitment patterns and by reinforcing proper running posture. In addition to the mechanical benefits, hill running also improves your aerobic fitness – that part that leaves you huffing and puffing when you get to the top!

For many people the idea of dedicating weeks or months to base building and easy running can be too tedious to put into practice. Hill training is a great way to break up some of the monotony and add some harder running into your base building phase. Hill training is much safer than traditional interval work or other types of running that produce a similar effort because the impact force of uphill running is so much less than it is on flat ground.

Being located in the mountains of Western North Carolina, our ZAP Fitness athletes spend a lot of time training on hills. In addition to doing traditional uphill repeats we will often do uphill tempo runs. The trick to reaping the benefits of being here in the mountains and having access to great hill training is that we have to be careful of running too much downhill. Downhill running has its benefits as well, but it does increase the impact forces on your body greatly compared to uphill and, to a lesser extent, flat running. If you are going to add hill training to your routine be sure to be cautious with downhills and focus on keeping your feet landing underneath your hips as you are run downhill.

Treadmill Running

While running sustained uphill runs of 5-7 miles like we do here in the mountains isn’t a realistic option for most people, you can do sustained uphill running, it may just be indoors on a treadmill. If you’re faced with treadmill running during the winter months anyway, mixing in some sustained uphill running is a fantastic way to elevate your fitness while reducing the impact stress normally associated with harder running.

There is a designed treadmill workout we use with our athletes that is ideal for passing the time on the treadmill – we don’t use it for that purpose, but it is a nice ancillary benefit. It is called “minute-minute-minute cycles” and the structure sounds complicated, but it’s quite simple. After an easy warm-up, start at 30-40 seconds/mile slower than marathon pace at an incline of 1%. Run that pace for 1 minute, and then move the pace up .1 mph and the incline to 2% for the 2nd minute, and up .1mph and to 3% for the 3rd minute. After the 3rd minute go right back to the 1st minute and repeat the sequence up to 2-3 times before moving on to the next 3 minute sequence, which you will start .1 mph faster than the previous sequence. You can do up to 5-6 three minute sequences, and once you get the hang of it you can mix up the paces and the inclines a little bit more. It does require a lot of button pushing, but it’s a great workout to practice changing gears within a run.

Before trying the “minute-minute-minute cycle” workout you should spend 3-4 weeks where you finish one run a week with some uphill repeats. Start with 6-10 repeats of 25 seconds each with a very easy walk or jog to the bottom between each. The next week do 6-10 repeats of 40-45 seconds each, and then 6-10 repeats of 60 seconds each. From there you can increase repeats or vary the distance. For example, do 3-4 repeats of 60 seconds, 3-4 repeats of 45 seconds, and 3-4 repeats of 30 seconds. All of these hill repeat workouts should be done at a strong effort, but one where you finish feeling like you could do more. If you’re on the treadmill you should target an incline of 3-6%

Try running more hills this winter to keep you motivated and engaged, and to springboard your fitness like never before heading into the spring and summer.

*This Article Originally Appeared in the January 2016 Issue of Running Journal