Training: Be a ballet dancer!

This article, Hill Drills: Running for Triathletes, shown here raises a very good point for runners and triathletes alike.

Lee Gardner, the author, opens with a quote that, if you don’t get it, means that you probably have much to gain by doing hill work on the run, even if all you do is race flat courses, because being strong on the hills makes you a strong runner capable of powering through paces and undulating terrain, even the flatter courses with minor dips and rises.

The quote:

“We don’t want our runners like weight lifters, we don’t want our runners like gymnasts; we want them like ballet dancers.” – Arthur Lydiard, Osaka, Japan, 1990

Gardner goes on to say that dancers in the ballet are “incredibly gifted athletes (dancers) executing quite amazing movement: Leaping and bounding with precision and speed over distance, arguably not unlike great runners.”

And it’s true.

If on the run you cannot “power over” short-to-medium sized rolling hills, then you can probably stand to gain strength and in turn speed by doing some of the hill workouts proposed in the article. I will summarize these below for varied abilities.

Put another way, if you cannot charge a hill, even a steeper, longer one, and on the way up stay on top of your toes with rapid cadence, using your feet as a spring boards with each foot fall, then you are leaving a lot of time out on the course that otherwise inflates your race times.

For beginners to hill work, or if you consider hills a weakness, start with doing hill repeats. Gardner calls these “Basic Hill Intervals,” where you would add a set of hill repeats to a run. Start with 3-7 repeats of 20 seconds to 60 second at easy to moderate pace. Work up to 8 repeats at 60 seconds or longer at moderate.

For intermediate runners, once you can work to 8 to 10 repeats of 60 seconds to 2 minutes at moderate pace (you can do fewer reps for the longer hills), you will want to layer in what Gardner calls “Hill Sprints.” These are short but race pace effort on moderate hills. Gardner recommends steep hills, but I won’t go that far. A hill with a moderate incline that you can charge up at 5K race pace effort or faster for between 30 seconds to up to 2 minutes is perfect.

Hill Sprints is where it is all at. This is where you can gain the sheer strength in the legs to power over hills, bound up them, and learn to recover on the fly. These alone will gain you an order of 10’s of seconds in a 5K if you aren’t doing them already.

For veteran runners, get right to the Hill Sprints, but pick a lengthy hill and charge it at better than 5K race pace. You want to charge the hill so that by the time you get to the top you can barely run another step. Spit up. And recover on the way back down the hill. Then repeat. Don’t worry about time, just charge. Do this workout a few times and you’ll have numbers dialed in. And you will improve drastically over a month since, after all, this is new to your legs.

Do your Hill Sprints and you too will feel like a ballerina, leaping and bounding over the stage that is the next hill, on your way to a PR.

(I left a lot of detail out of this, but if you want more information or even ideas for workouts, feel free to contact me at thor at kirleis dot org.)


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