Hills are a metaphor for life. Everyone endures slippery slopes, shaky summits, and risky ridges.
It’s how we tackle those hills that define us as human beings. That hill could be a literal incline that is on your running or walking route. That hill could also be a figurative one that so many Texans are facing right now with Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath. I have been inspired and been made hopeful by the many acts of bravery and selflessness I have witnessed on television, and via social media. It is heartening to see so many people across the USA and Canada reach their hands out so that others may grasp them and be pulled upwards on that steep hill to rebuilding their lives.
I truly did not realize how strong I was mentally until I started incorporating hills and hill repeats into my running routine in 2011. Living in Raleigh, North Carolina meant that there were loads of hills for me to choose from. The physical rewards were almost immediate, which led to my understanding of what I was capable of. Being capable of conquering those hills at a good running pace gave me confidence which, in turn, made me want to seek out steeper inclines. Mental and emotional toughness are things that need to be cultivated, tested and acted upon. It’s every bit as much of a muscle as your quads and hamstrings are.
This mental toughness prepared me to fight colon cancer in 2015 and, sadly, prepared me to lend support to my daughter-in-law when she was abandoned in 2016, while pregnant and with a toddler in tow, by my Tinder addicted stepson. You simply cannot rule out mental fortitude when it comes to navigating through life, as well as maintaining a fitness regimen.
I believe you have to give yourself tough things to do. You have to push yourself and give yourself personal, physical goals. If you are a runner or a walker, when you get comfortable with your 5 km distance, it’s time to start thinking about a 10 km. When a 10 km is no longer fear inducing, it’s time to move on to a half marathon. The point is that in order to know your potential as a human being, you need to set physical goals for yourself. If your mind set is that you enjoy your 5 km because you know you can do it…..that it is a safe bet……then you are not growing mentally, and you will certainly stagnate physically. Your body adapts and doesn’t improve.
If you are looking to improve as a runner or a walker, you should be incorporating hill running (or walking) at least once per week. That’s the bare minimum. You can do that in two ways. You can do hill repeats or you can incorporate your hills into a regular workout.
If you decide to do hill repeats, you again, have two choices. You can find a gradual, long hill and tackle it several times, or you could find a shorter much steeper hill and run/walk that several times. Both methods are great. The former builds endurance and mental toughness, and the latter builds explosive strength, works you anaerobically, and also builds mental toughness. Let’s face it, hills require you to tell your brain to shut up and your legs to move. There have been times, after a hill repeat session, that my lungs, legs, and sweat glands have demanded a divorce from my heart.
If you decide that you would rather just incorporate hills into a regular run (*going forward, every time I use the word run, you can substitute it with walk if you desire), then you need to make sure that there are actual hills on that run, whether it be an out and back, or a loop. In order for it to be an effective hill run, you will need to ensure that there are at least four to five areas where you have an elevation increase.
Okay….you’ve decided WHICH type of hill running you want to do, so now the question to ask yourself is HOW do you run a hill? Should you do it slowly? Should you charge the hill? What should your form be? Should your stride shorten or lengthen? Where you should push off from? How about your cadence? So many questions….but I have all the answers!
First of all, you need to attack the hill. You should be ready mentally and physically for it. If you are just starting out, you will find it helpful to keep your head slightly down, rather than looking ahead, as I usually suggest. This will help you overcome the mental aspect of the hill. You don’t need to be discouraged by looking upwards to the apex of the hill. It may seem MILES away and there is a chance you might give up. Keep your head slightly lowered and concentrate on your breath.
When you are running up a hill, you will naturally want to tilt forward slightly. That’s okay, BUT keep your chest up so you don’t hunch AND so you can breathe!!
You need to use your mid foot to strike the ground and drive through your glutes. Your glutes are powerful, let them engage and help you with the elevation change.
You will need to slightly increase your cadence as you start your climb, and as you near the apex of the hill, speed your cadence up a bit more. Once you reach the top, one of two things will happen. 1) There will be a downhill. Use this to recover. Keep running, even if you have to slow down a bit. Once you’ve caught your breath you can use the decline as a way to increase your pace. If the slope is super steep going down, think skiing. Yes. Skiing. You should do a smooth zig zag as you run down the hill. It will save your shins. 2) The crest of the hill will be flat. Keep going. Do NOT stop. You can gradually slow down and start walking quickly, but do not stop completely. You might be surprised at how quickly you recover, and as soon as you do, get back to running.
Your legs might feel heavy at first, right after the hill climb, but pick up your knees as soon as they start to feel light again. The most important thing to remember is breathing. Your lungs need that oxygen to feed your muscles. Take deep, long breaths. This type of breathing helps to ward off side stitches, a common occurrence with new exercisers.
As you gain belief in yourself, and your abilities, you’ll look at the hills in your life in a whole new way. I love how I feel a bit bolder as a human being, and as a woman. Tackling those hills has given me faith that I can get through anything. After all, what choice do we have? We can either walk away from hills or we can have them for breakfast. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry!
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