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How to Conquer Hilly Races: 5 Tips to Run Your Best Butte to Butte

We are less than a month away from one of Eugene’s favorite, historic road races (and one of my personal favorites) - the OTC Butte to Butte! Some of us LOVE hill running, and some of us would be happy to never encounter another incline. Regardless of how you feel about them, hills are great for you, and are a staple feature of the upcoming Butte to Butte 10k. Let’s break down the benefits of running hills, as well as some tips you can implement to make the most of hilly runs and races.

Hills are GREAT for Runners.

Why? There are a multitude of benefits, but here are a few:

  • Effective workout on a time crunch - running a few hills can put some good burn in your legs, and drive adaptation to make you a better runner, without being as time consuming as a lengthy track or tempo workout.

  • Increase Stride Variability-  rather than repeating the exact same stride, step after step, hills inject some variety in the way that you come into contact with, and push off the ground, which is good for building durability in your body and movements.

  • Increase Muscle Recruitment - More of your muscle fibers get recruited when hill running, which translates to improving your speed and running economy over time.

  • Strength -  for masters athletes in particular it’s a great way to stave off strength loss in key areas such as the calves(see the Faster Master Series Part 4 for more on this)

  • Improves Form and Cadence - running hills well can help improve your running form for the better, and is a great way to work on increasing your turnover (how quickly you take steps while running).

Now that you’re sold on the benefits, here are some key takeaways to get better at running hills: 

  1. Visualize the Top- the first time I ran the Butte to Butte 10k, I had never seen the course, and did not know what to expect over the first few miles. This is certainly not an ideal strategy. Prior to race day, it is a good idea to do a jog or drive through the course, at least the first, hilly part, so that you can visualize cresting the top of the hill on race day. This can make the hill seem less daunting, and help you mentally get through that hill climbing leg/lung burn. 

  1. Take your Strides Uphill - most runners do strides at the end of some easier runs to work on form and turnover (reference: previous article that breaks down the value of strides). Doing these same strides on an incline are an easy way to help you prepare. Keep in mind that strides don’t have to be for distance– you can do 10,15, or 20 second short strides on an incline instead of 80-100 meter flat ground strides

  1. Don’t forget to Train the Downhill - often when we think of a hilly race, we dread those killer inclines, but it is important for our bodies to be prepared for the demands of downhill running, which can be demanding on our quads, hips, and calves that are working eccentrically, slowing us down as we descend. So, in addition to running uphill, practice some quicker downhill running as well. 

  1. Quick Feet!  When going uphill, your stride will naturally shorten. To accommodate this you should take quick small steps, at a steady rate to “pace” yourself for the hill, rather than “attacking” the hill too quickly too early. For Butte to Butte, the goal is to get to the top and still have steam to keep running.

  1. Embrace the Forward Lean- with both running uphill, and downhill, we should be leaning from the ankles (aka falling forward) in order to be post efficient. This should come fairly naturally with uphill running, but is helpful to recruit the correct, efficient muscles for downhill running too. This can seem intimidating with downhill running, but when combined with short quick steps, your quad will be thanking you later in the race!

When instituting new form cues discussed above, starting gradual is key - try with a gentle slope, and overtime as you get more confident running hills, you can graduate to steeper slopes. 

In fact, the type of hill you pick should be strategic, based on what you are trying to get out of the hill session. Steeper hills are going to be a better stimulus for building strength, where a more gradual hill will better help you work on tapping into speed. 

If you are new to running or starting a new block of training after some time off, a few weeks of flat, easy running before jumping into hills is usually advisable. Keep in mind, especially when you are starting out, hill running is a workout, and like any running workout, your body needs some relative rest and recovery between hill running sessions to fully recover. Starting with a hilly run if you are used to only running flat can be a workout in itself for starters. 

It’s time to lace up, and hunt for a hill! By putting in some groundwork now, you will be ready to conquer the storied hill on the Butte to Butte course. The benefits of hill training go beyond your next race.  Incorporating hills into your training, say, every few weeks, is a great way to infuse some variety, helping you grow as a runner. 

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