Love and Hate of Hill Running

My Life as a Runner > training > Love and Hate of Hill Running
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We all know hill workout builds stronger leg muscles and better running economy, but we all hate hills. Legs burn and lungs hurt. We breathe so heavily that our mouth gets dry. People, especially those drivers coming down the hill, look at us funny. Whether we are just running hills or doing hill repeats, it’s just not a fun workout. Unfortunately, however, hill workouts produce great results, and a lot of coaches recommend distant runners integrate hill workouts in their regular training. So, I had decided, a while ago, that I should head for the hills to improve my marathon time.

Living in San Francisco, it is not difficult to find a stretch of hill. Actually, it is difficult to find a stretch of flat course, unless you go to the landfill neighborhood. The two steepest hills in the Western Hemisphere are in San Francisco: One is 22nd Street and the other is Filbert Street. Near my house, there are plenty of gentle rolling hills and steep hills I can train on. So, about four years ago, I decided I should take advantage of these hills and started some hill workouts. I know there are different hill workouts, mostly hill repeats. But I don’t like to do those repeats, since it is much like track intervals. I want to enjoy the change of scenery – between staring at asphalt and looking up for air, that is. So, I’ve built routes that have as many hills as I can handle in one run. My regular hill run has 3.5 miles of pretty good hill climb with about 20% flat running. I use that 20% as a warm-up, because it is in the first 20% of the 3.5-mile hill climb.

The steepest stretch of hill I run is Clipper between Castro and Portola. It is about 0.6 miles with gradient of 11.6° – arctan(47/402). It feels much steeper than 11.6° when I am running, though. It is also often windy on this climb. Gusty wind can slow me down quite a bit, especially in the spring. This hill was, needless to say, pretty intimidating when I first started to run. I ran huffing and puffing, sometimes cursing, always hating. But after four years of taming, I’ve got used to the hill and now I can run it under seven minutes. This hill run is definitely helping my marathon time, as I have PRed in every marathon from the first San Francisco Marathon in 2007.

Not that Clipper alone is too easy, but I started to extend my hill run to include Twin Peaks Blvd that takes me all the way to Twin Peaks, though the road is not as steep as Clipper. It is about 0.9 mile of up-hill, and when the weather is good (does not happen very often in this neck of the woods), view is fantastic at the top of Twin Peaks. Conquering Twin Peaks and the 360-degree view of San Francisco gives me a good boost of energy, which I could use to cruise downhill at 6-minute/mile pace and try to maintain the pace through Noe Valley to back home. This usually gives average pace of about 7:20/mile for the round trip.

After Twin Peaks, I wonder what hill I should challenge next. Since Twin Peaks is the highest point in San Francisco, there is no more hill climbing in this route. I need to research, but I think there is a very long stretch of hill from Glen Park to Portola near Miraloma.

Training on these tough hills pays off big time when I run in other cities. For example, Boston’s infamous Heartbreak Hill is nothing compared to these hills, even when it comes at around Mile 19. I still had lots of energy left when I was running the Heartbreak Hill, and I remember passing a bunch of runners there. If I continue running these hills a couple times a week, my legs should get stronger and my running economy should get more efficient. I love the hills – NOT!

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