An athlete’s question: Hill repeats or hilly run?

I really like these and maybe we should make it a regular part of blogging! I got another great question from Jill, an athlete we wrote a custom schedule for. She emailed me a very simple question that doesn’t have a simple answer: “What is better hill repeats or a hilly run at marathon pace?” Great question! The answer is… Both! Thanks for reading, have a great day!

Just kidding! The answer is both, but for other reasons. Let’s first look at hill repeats. Let’s ask ourselves what the main purpose is of hill repeats is? What is the benefit? Well, we know they’ll make us stronger, so let’s knock that one out of the way. One big aspect of hills is that it is a great form of speed work, or working at close to VO2max effort (not pace). With shorter, but faster hill repeats we are working very close to our VO2max if we are hammering hard up a 1-4 minute hill a few times in a row. You can tell just by how hard that you are breathing that you are working hard, right? With that, we are working on some neuromuscular components as well. With the intense effort, we begin recruiting all of our muscle fiber types to help out. This eventually “opens” up channels to some fast and intermediate twitch muscle fibers that you didn’t even know you had. At the end of the day, think of hill repeats as helping more with overall strength and top end components- lactate buffering, VO2 max, and things like that.

A final note about short hill repeats is that I will use them as gateways towards other workouts. With Boston Marathon people, what I will do is start out with UP hill repeats and a slow recovery back down the hill. Eccentric contractions are crucial for hill running, but they beat you up pretty good in the process. Over time, we’ll adjust and hard UP hill repeats, recover, and then DOWN hill repeats to prepare their legs for the thrashing they’ll get over 26 miles.

What about a tempo run on a hilly course? You’ll get a lot of benefit from theses, both physiologically and structurally. You’ll build your strength obviously, but it’s more like lifting 2 sets of 20 reps of medium weight, compared to like lifting 2 sets of 8 reps as hard as you can with hill repeats. You’ll still get muscle fiber recruitment too, simply because you’ll fatigue your muscles with a fairly intense effort over 30-70 or 80 minutes. For marathoners, that’s great because it’s very race like. These are all great benefits, but to me, one thing we can’t overlook is their eventual impact on our ability to judge effort and pace. For instance, right now, many people have awoken from treadmill hibernation, where they’ve simply set the pace on the hamster wheel and zoned out to their latest podcast of Dateline, or whatever you listen too. Now, they go outside and after letting their eyes recover from the new found sun, realize that there are hills and turns and beautiful scenery. I’m partly kidding, but you know what I mean- we forget and have forgot if we haven’t run in situations where we need to say, “man my pace is slow, but it certainly feels like a hard effort.” I reference back to folks training for Boston. There’s only small section of that course where it’s really flat. It seems like that you are either going up or down most of the time. This means splits will be fast and splits will be slow. It may be hard to find a rhythm. If you’ve practiced pace and effort on hills, then you’ll have more confidence and trust yourself that the effort is there and in the end, the pace will average out.

So there you have it, they are both important but for different reasons. Both have a place in training and can be utilized to your benefit.

– Luke


Some speedwork observations

May marks the annual tradition of Tuesday night speedwork seesions at Dodge Park in Utica. For those unfamiliar with the area, Dodge Park has a hard packed dirt path that winds through the main park for just short of a mile. Since most of our adult runners will never run a track race, this path is a perfect compromise for getting fast work in and being on a similar surface that they will race. Our speed sessions attract over 100 people (of all pace ranges) in the summer, and this makes it much more usable for everyone. So, at any rate, we have now completed our first three speed work sessions, and in that time, I have made some observations.

1) As much as the word “intervals” has been thrown around in mainstream running publications, the idea still seems to cause a great deal of confusion to the average runner.

Let’s start with the basics. Intervals at their basic structure are intervals of faster and slower running. They can be based on a set distance, time (or pace), or both. So, a typical Interval workout is 12×400. This means that a person will complete 12 fast intervals of 400 meters.

As far as time and pace, there are a couple ways to express an interval workout. For instance, you could express the same workout above in even more detail: 12×400 @ 5k pace. So, now we give a set pace for what the intervals should be run at.

A second way to approach the interval is by only time. When a track or loop is not available, you can simple say something like, 12×2 minutes at 5k effort. So now the emphasis is to run for a set amount of time, regardless of distance traveled. I usually only do this if a person has no idea where they are at with their fitness, or it’s winter and a track isn’t going to be accessable.

Where people really get confused: When adding a recovery jog. A complete interval workout may look something like this: 12×400 meters @ 5k pace, with 400 jog recovery. When runners see the complete workout written, they often get confused and think that everything should add up to 12. This is not the case. The number you are given in a workout is always the number of faster intervals that is being prescribed. The recovery jog whould always be listed as a seperate component.

2) Most people really don’t know how to approach intervals.

This past week’s speed session was a perfect example. We were running 600 meter intervals. Just long enough that proper pacing will be crucial for completion- by completion, I mean not having a big time discrepncy between the first and last interval. My observation was simple this week, people go out way too hard and try to end up racing their group mates. I love the group training because it gives you someone to get through the workout with, but I hate when they just try to run faster and faster until one, or more, of them break. Interval workouts are not meant for racing- that’s done on the weekends. The goal of interval workouts is to stress a specific physiological system in order to make long term training adaptations. When you start out too fast and finish way too slow, the only thing you have gotten better at is slowing down. The majority of time, that runner will do the same thing in their weekend race.

If you have to walk on your recovery you are running your intervals too fast! That’s the one thing to remember.

3) Regardless of age, speed work can make you faster.

We have all ages, men, women and kids who attend the speed nights. One thing that is constant, is that they all get faster. Maybe not in the first few weeks, but over the course of the summer, the majority are doing things that they didn’t think possible and doing them faster than when they started. If you are unsure of speedwork, I suggest finding a group. With our groups as large as they are, nobody runs alone and there is someone there who can show you the ropes.

I have seen some pretty amazing changes with runners across age groups. If you are in the Detroit Metro area, we do speedworkouts from May til October. Dodge Park, which is at Dodge Park and Utica Roads in Utica. Announcements and warm up at 6:30 PM.