My practice: Steady hill climbs

Running Rene 2I refer to every running session, we do as ‘practice’ rather than ‘workout’ to stress the emphasis: we want to practice doing the right thing and not simply motoring through with terrible running technique and bad biomechanics.

We coaches disseminate a lot of theoretical material on the internet these days and not always enough about what we actually practice. So starting today, I will share practice sessions I have recently done or am just about to do with my athletes or on my own.

Because a lot of advice becomes essentially useless if you rob it of its context, I will always provide the background necessary to understand ‘why’ we are doing this session and guide you on how you should modify it if your context and situation is different.

Steady hill climbs


Glendalough AC, the running club where I serve as head coach, meet for most of our runs in the Laragh GAA grounds in the heart of the scenic Wicklow Mountains. We are blessed with runnable trails on our door-step.

We will have a team competing in the annual Wicklow Way Relay, which I have been race directing since 2014, in which teams of 8 runners compete on hilly trail routes ranging from 8 km to 21 km.

To prepare our runners psychologically, physically and tactically to manage the long extended climbs well, we will do a steady workout over a known uphill course.

In previous winters, we have used the infamous ‘zig-zags’ at Derrybawn Woods for our hil repeats because we can easily access the start of the climb from the GAA pitch  .The short trot to the barrier that marks the start serves as our warm-up.

For my runners I want a session that is a challenge without over-taxing anyone. Our current group consists of runners of medium experience – most having run from 2 to 5 years – but not many very athletes will longer experience and no beginners as these are in the Fit4Life group.

The climb to the top is 1500 metres with about 150 metres of vertical ascent. Ascent grades vary throughout and all the under-foot is hard-packed trail very similar to the upcoming race. Most runners complete the climb in 12 to 16 minutes if they do hill repeats with active running recovery, so running the whole climb steadily I expect about 10-15 minutes ‘under tension’ for my runners.

Coaching considerations

Since the race is only 9 days away we cannot expect major up-turns in our runners fitness and we also do not want to risk over-cooking our athletes or giving them a very negative experience with the uphill as this could well be the last memory they carry into the race.

We want to ‘toughen it up’ and ‘succeed’ at the same time. My training philosophy obeys Arthur Lydiard’s dictum to ‘train, don’t strain’ and I do not want to see major break-down in form as that is a sign to me that runners ‘have lost control’. You could call this ‘controlled aggression’ to describe exactly what I want from the session.

Since the main part of the session is quite short – 10 to 15 minutes of the 60 minutes available – we will do uphill drills and strides as the final part of our warm-up.

I like to use very quick two and one-legged jumping drills uphill with focus on upright posture as well as quick strides with exaggerated running form to move the body’s joints through full range of motion.

My instructions

I will instruct the runners to focus on an effort they could describe as 6 or 7 out of 10 and that ‘deep, rapid breathing’ is acceptable but not ‘rapid, shallow breathing’ (hyper-ventilating). Runners will likely describe this as ‘steady’ to ‘comfortably hard’.

I will ask them to imagine they had to go back down and do the whole ascent one more time at the same effort to ensure they don’t ‘go to the well’.

As a final cue I will let them know that a huge drop-off in pace on the second half of the climb means they paced themselves badly and to try for an even effort throughout.

Once the runners reach the top, they should wait on for their team-mates as part of the team spirit of the upcoming event. We can safely do this as the evening will have high temperatures and the trail is sheltered by forest.

When everyone has gathered at the top, we allow runners to make their own way down ‘relaxed fast’ or ‘easy’, whichever they prefer. Once back at the gate, everyone collects any jackets or similar and we use the 10 minute trot back as our cool-down before doing some gentle mobility on the GAA pitch.

When to use it

You can use this session in similar circumstances to those described here or you can place it as a general strength-building workout in early or mid-part of your build-up to an important race.

The workout could be done on road if training for a road race instead of a trail race and slope and distance customised to suit your race distance. The earlier in training you do this type of ‘steady climb’, the more control you need to show with your pace as you are not yet as fit as you will be later. Running Rene 2

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