Ironman Triathletes and Hill Training

Hill training is a great way for triathletes to build strength and endurance.

Many triathletes will ignore running hills as they believe it has little value in the big scheme of things as far as Ironman Triathlon training goes.

There are also those who will ignore this type of training because it’s simply too hard to get themselves up and down that hill over and over again. Well, if you’re training for your first Ironman you will soon find out what “hard” truly is and anything you can do to prepare yourself will work to your advantage on the big day.

hill training

Great form! Lean slightly forward on the uphills.


I was guilty of ignoring this method of training for many years myself, but once I incorporated it into my regular training schedule for several months in the course of training for an upcoming Ironman I became a fitter and stronger runner.

HILLS ARE GREAT TRAINING FOR THE IRONMAN MARATHON

One Spring after reading an article on hill training I decided to incorporate “up” and “downhill” repeats as part of my training leading up to an Ironman that was about 4 months away.

For ten weeks I tackled a large hill near my home once a week and worked my way up to 10 repeats. I concentrated on maintaining speed and building strength on the uphills as well as economical form and balance on the downhills.

Ten repeats is pretty extreme and working your way up to five or six repeats will also benefit you on Ironman day. I always was a bit of a training fanatic.

UPHILL “AND” DOWNHILL RUN TRAINING ARE EQUALLY IMPORTANT

I credit my personal best 3:34 marathon in Ironman Canada the following year in large part to my solitary runs up and down that hill. Sure it’s not blistering fast, but I was a 44-year-old age-grouper at the time.

Many great marathons have been decided on the hills and we can take a lesson from some of the best runners in the world.

Few people realize that the winner of the Boston Marathon is not really determined on Heartbreak Hill, but rather in the miles of downhill proceeding it. It’s important to keep in mind that learning a sound technique for running downhill is also an important part of hill training.

GREAT RUNNERS KNOW HOW TO RUN HILLS

Runners who can handle the Boston Marathon downhills with economy and speed will almost always catch the runners in front of them who have trashed their quads on the downhills and can’t maintain their pace on Heartbreak Hill.

Add to that the fact that Heartbreak Hill begins at the 20 mile mark where most runners run out of glycogen and hit the wall, and it’s easy to see why the more efficient downhill runners will more often than not conserve energy, maintain form, and wear the laurel wreath of victory.

So If you decide to add hill training to your schedule be sure to make uphill “and” downhill running part of your preparation for an upcoming Ironman Triathlon or marathon.

I found the best time to begin a hill training program is when the your big event is about 13 or 14 weeks away. That allows 10 weeks to slowly build up your hill training and still have 4 weeks to taper into your event.

A SIMPLE PROGRAM

First of all, find the right hill. For this type of training a hill that has a gradual grade that ends up being quite steep by the time you reach the top is best. For instance, you don’t want to start running straight uphill the moment you begin the repeat but want to ease yourself into it as the hill gets steeper and steeper.

I found the perfect hill that took around 2 minutes to reach the top and it had a flat stretch about 200 meters long once I crested the hill.

I decided I would do a 9-week hill training program and for those 9 weeks did hill training once a week.

I started with 2 hill repeats the first session and every week I added one repeat and the final week of hill training I did 10 repeats. You can set your hill-training goal anyway you want, but it’s important to increase the work-load over many weeks to prevent stress and injury.

I tried to run each hill repeat in each session faster than the previous one. So I would begin by going up the hill on the first repeat at a pace I could easily handle and then try and better that time on the next repeat. I always tried to make my last repeat the fastest.

So it’s easy to see how this can become quite a workout once you are doing 5 or more of these repeats.

I had a starting point at the bottom of the hill and a finishing point 200 meters beyond the crest of the hill.

Once I crested the hill, I pushed myself to keep on running until I reached my finish marker 200 meters away. It can be a tree, a telephone pole or a house. In my case it was a fire hydrant that I sprinted toward.

Often I’ve been in marathons or an Ironman Triathlon where runners will push to the top of a hill and then slow down big-time once they reach the top. I was training myself to keep on running once I reached the top and I believe this really helped my endurance and took the fear out of tackling big hills on race-day.

sand hill training

Some runners hill train in the sand to increase the degree of difficulty.


I went up the hill at a strong, steady pace and this seemed to help build my strength as well as endurance over the course of the 9 week hill training program I developed for myself.

I started my stop-watch at the beginning mark and stopped it at my finish point.

I never stopped running for the duration of the hill session. Once I reached the end of the repeat at the top of the hill, I turned around and slowly began to run back toward the crest of the hill. The slow run back to the crest was the recovery phase.

On the downhill I really concentrated on maintaining good energy-saving form and avoiding the braking action that most of us runners seem to be guilty of when we run downhill. It’s that braking action that plays a big part in trashing your quads and makes walking so difficult the day after the race.

When I reached my starting point again I started my timer again and began the next repeat.

So you can see why it’s necessary for a slow build-up as each repeat is done faster than the one previous and each week another repeat is added.

It’s best if you have an easy 15 or 20 minute run before and after your hill session. One is for a warm-up and one is for recovery. From the minute I began the warm-up run over to the hill I never stopped running for the entire workout until after the cool-down at the end of the hill session. That was the part that believe really helped my overall endurance.

So, do a 15 or 20 minute warm-up that leads right into your first hill repeat and when you reach the finish point turn and continue to run easily as you recover and than run downhill using proper form, then turn and go right into your next repeat. After the last repeat continue right into your 15 or 20 minute cool-down.

By the time I reached up to 8-10 repeats the total workout was taking between 90 minutes and 2 hours non-stop. It’s an amazing workout and that’s why you should plan a rest day for the day after.

It’s best to have an easy day before your hill training day and a full rest day after. For a triathlete that easy day before hill day might mean a fairly short swim and for a marathoner perhaps an easy 30-45 minute run.

As I have often said, I am not a coach. This is just a hill workout that really worked well for me and I’m passing it on to you to try if you like.

You can modify it to suit your needs, but I feel two very important points are to continue running once you crest the hill and concentrating just as much on the downhill as you do the uphill.

I can tell you one thing for sure, when Ironman day arrived and I came to a hill it was still a difficult challenge but was far less formidable because I had prepared myself for it both mentally and physically during those hill training sessions.

On Ironman day every psychological advantage you can possibly find will be instrumental in helping you reach the Ironman Triathlon finish line.

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