Training for Hills in Chi City (Q & A)

Specificity is one of the most important concepts to employ if you want to race well, which is why training for mountainous trail ultramarathons on flat pavement can be quite the challenge at times.  I was recently asked in an email from a blog reader, Liz, what I do for hill training in Chicago and what I think is the best way to train for hilly races, and more specifically, hilly trail ultras when living in a flat location.  So I thought I would answer that in a blog post outlining what I've been doing for hill training, along with a few other thoughts on training for hilly trail ultras.

Unsurprisingly, I think it's pretty important to do some hill training if you're going to be racing ultras or trail races in the U.S., as those are almost necessarily hilly*.  Hills just make you stronger in general anyway and provide some unique stimuli—you can work very hard in a low-impact environment, get a greater range of motion for certain muscles (your calves elongate more for instance), and reach muscle fibers that you don't normally reach when training on flatter roads or the track.  And while everyone can benefit from hill training, it is particularly important if you're going to be racing on hills.

In Chicago, my only real option is running on a treadmill, up a parking garage, or climbing flights of stairs.  I prefer the treadmill because of its convenience and the level of control it allows—setting pace, grade, duration, etc.  I’ve been doing a hill workout probably once every two or three weeks on average the past six months, though I should probably be doing hills every week, as they are currently still a weakness of mine.

Initially, I was doing uphill tempo runs, either 20-30 minute tempos, or 2 x 15-20 minute tempos with a 4 or 5 minute (flat) recovery jog.  I would run the tempos mostly between 8 and 12 percent grade.  I certainly felt these runs were beneficial, but I’ve recently been doing a different workout that I like a lot more. 

I’ve switched over to what I consider an aerobic power interval workout (in Joe Vigil parlance), run uphill on the treadmill at 15 percent grade.  I do 8 to 12 repetitions of 4 or 5 minutes with just 1 or 2 minutes recovery.  I do the recovery run at the same pace at which I’m running the hill reps, but at 0 percent grade instead of 15 percent; this keeps things simple, as all I have to adjust is the grade at the proper time intervals.  I like this workout better than the tempos, as I can run at a faster pace and at a steeper grade, which gives a greater muscular benefit.  Additionally, the total duration of hard running can be greater, in the 40-60 minute range. 

This workout is similar to the medium-long hill reps that you see in some workout schedules or training plans.  However, those reps usually have you run down the same hill as recovery.  While that is great for training your quads to handle the increased eccentric load of downhill running, the interval/recovery ratio is roughly 1:1.  On the treadmill, you can keep the recovery short, which allows you to get a better Anaerobic Threshold stimulus, not totally unlike Daniels’ “cruise intervals.”

In the second part of her email, Liz also asked about doing track work and tempos on the pavement.  Specifically, she felt that those workouts take a lot out of her, that perhaps they aren’t very beneficial to trail ultra racing, and she wondered if she might be better served doing easy or moderate runs (or even färtleks) on hilly trails.

Liz continued, making reference to a comment I made in a recent iRunFar interview, where I said that the faster you are at shorter distances, the better you’ll be at ultra distances.  I stand by that statement 100%, as the fitter you are, the faster you can run while staying aerobic.  There are, of course, other limiters in ultra running, like muscular fatigue, caloric intake, etc.; so you certainly need to make sure you’re working on the whole spectrum of traits needed to excel at ultra running. 

All that said, working on improving your “speed”* is great; but by that I really just mean improving your overall fitness: parameters like your aerobic and anaerobic threshold, ability to use lactate as a fuel source, etc.  I would not encourage “traditional” track work for most people—which I would define as shorter intervals with long-ish rest that is either walking or a very slow jog.  There is a time and place for that type of work, but it is rare, and by and large, it is way overdone in the States. 

Instead, if you want to hit the track, I would encourage workouts more in the vein of Aussie Quarters or the Oregon 30/40s workout.  Aussie Quarters consist of 8 x 400m reps w/ 200m recovery runs at a moderate pace.  The exact balance between speed on the 400s and quick-ish recovery on the 200s can shift depending on what you want to emphasize, but by running the 200s quickly, you won’t overdo it on the anaerobic side and you’ll learn to clear/utilize lactate while running at a moderate pace.  The Oregon 30/40s is a workout that consists of 30 second 200s alternated with 40 second 200s, run until you drop, usually 3-5 miles for Oregon’s top guys.  For guys of that caliber, those paces (4:00/mile and 5:20/mile) equated roughly to mile race pace and marathon pace (or a bit slower).  So you could structure a workout similarly, scaling paces back accordingly.  You also don’t have to have measured 200m intervals: a workout of 4 miles alternating 30 seconds hard running with 30 seconds moderate recovery would be very similar.

And you don’t even necessarily need as much structure as that.  I think a steady diet of progression runs (in the 6-10 mile range), tempo runs (ranging from 4 miles for anaerobic threshold pace up to 10-15 miles for aerobic threshold pace or slightly slower), and färtleks (time intervals are fine, but you can be creative too, using landmarks and mixing it up) would serve anyone well in improving her overall fitness.  All of those workouts can be done on hilly trails, and again, if you’re going to be racing on trails, the more you can do so, the better.  I would certainly do more workouts on the trails if I had regular access to them.

A final bit of advice on training for a trail ultra race when you live in a mostly flat city: make use of other races as training stimuli.  I have no doubt that racing the American River 50 Mile in April allowed me to fair better at the Ice Age 50 Mile in May.  And likewise, Ice Age surely helped me to run well at the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile earlier this month.  So find a goal race, and if you can’t access similar terrain in training, book a few races in the months preceding it that are of equal or lesser distance and of similar terrain and elevation profile.  Just be aware that when you treat a race as a training stimulus, it is in reality going to be harder than just about any training session, so you need to take a corresponding lengthier recovery afterwards. 

* OK, if you're racing the Chicago Lakefront 50/50, you probably don't need hill training, though it sure won't hurt!

** When I say “speed,” I mean true basic speed, your literal top end.  In common training speak, people often refer to anaerobic intervals as “speed” training, but this is a bit of a misnomer.