Efficient Hill Running 4

How to get the most out of your race by effeciently running hills

If you do a web search “hill running,” you’ll receive dozens of hits touting the benefits with regards to increasing speed and strength. The point of this article is not to reinvent the wheel, but to discuss how you can efficiently run hills without overcooking your legs and save them for the later portion of your race.

Running hills can be very taxing to the anaerobic system, which is one of the reasons it’s used for speed work. When racing, a hill is not something to be conquered, but managed. Learning to efficiently run hills is just as much a skill that needs to be developed as learning to maintain a constant wattage (or low variability index) while cycling. Let’s first discuss this in terms of cycling then bring it back to running.

We try to ride at a constant wattage because your body is most efficient, fatiguing at a slower rate, when it’s always working at the same level of exertion. When cycling at a constant wattage under consistent environmental conditions you should see very little change in your heart rate (assuming you don’t become overly fatigued or dehydrated). As you encounter hills on the bike you have the advantage of being able modify your exertion using your gears in combination with your power meter for second-by-second feedback. If you’re not using your power meter properly and allow your power to spike on the hills, you’ll see your power rise almost instantly on your power meter while it can take 15-30 seconds before your heart rate begins to increase.

Too often I see all the work done to manage fatigue on the bike go out the window when athletes blast up a hill, trying to maintain the same run pace they were on the flats. While running, the goal is still to maintain a constant level of exertion. Running, you are at a disadvantage because of the lack of gears, and you don’t have instantaneous feedback from a device like a power meter. The only way to manage your effort is to modify your pace and stride. Your heart rate and perceived exertion will clue you in to how hard you are working, but there that 15-30 second lag before your heart catches up to how hard you’re working. Just like in cycling, when approaching a hill you need to gauge the hill and predetermine how far to dial back the intensity to keep your heart rate in check.

When coming into a hill, I recommend a few things:
1) Look at your watch and note your HR on the flat surface.
2) Look at the hill and try to anticipate how much you need to dial down the intensity in order to stay within 10 bpm of your heart rate on the flat surface. Often times this may mean swallowing your pride and power walking the hill. The goal is to get to the finish first. You’ll catch them later.
3) Enable your Virtual (running) Partner activated on your Garmin if you have one. As you run up the hill, allow yourself to fall behind him in order to keep your heart rate down, then accelerate down the back side of the hill and catch up.

Similar to normalized power, Training Peaks will calculate a normalized graded pace that takes into account elevation. This will be more accurate once you apply the Elevation Correction.

When I look at data after my runs, I’m looking for two things with regards to hills:
1) How much did my HR spike and dip on the hills?
2) How close was my normalized, graded pace to my average pace?

Provided you’re not working with any injuries, try to incorporate some hills into your easy/endurance runs as it gives you the opportunity to work on modifying your intensity while running and will help you know how to handle hills on race day. On a good run, you should typically be able to maintain normalized pace within 5 seconds of your average pace.

 –Dave Sek

01 June 2014


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4 thoughts on “Efficient Hill Running

  • jmalionek

    Dave, is there something similar to Variable Index that we look at on the bike, or do we just do the math after the run and compare the NGP to our pace? What is EF? Thanks!

    • Dave Sek
      Dave Sek Post author

      Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to variability index in running that I’m aware of. In order to do this I think you would need some sort of force sensor in your shoe. There is a couple things you can look at instead though. 1) Like you said, just compare the NGP (normalized graded pace) to your average pace, and 2) enable the chart that allows you to look at your HR distribution and compare the distribuiton on a nice, steady ride to your runs. Here it’s the relative distribuiton you want to pay attention to, not the raw numbers, as your HR will likely be higher running at similar intensities.

      EF stands for efficiency factor. It’s the ratio of the average nomalized power or graded pace to the average HR (Pw/Pa:HR). This can be a whole other article in itself. But in short, over time you want to see this ratio increase (more power/speed at the same heart rate). Within a workout, EF is used to calculate your Pw/Pa:HR, which should be less than 5% assuming you have fueled and hydrated properly and if the workout is not more than you are prepared for at that point in time.