When I met Haile Gebrselassie in March 2009, I asked him to name his favorite workout.
“Hill training is my favorite,” he said. “Because that’s the one that gives you a lot of problems. Pain. Breathing too much. Struggling too much. Of course you don’t enjoy it during training, but after training, after you reach the top and you look down, and say, ‘That is what I did,’ it gives you confidence.”
I later learned that the specific workout Geb was referring to consisted of 90 minutes straight up and back down Entoto Mountain near his home in Addis Ababa. He is not the only runner who does this workout. It is a staple in the training of Ethiopian runners, and all of the top Kenyan runners do a similar version in the mountains surrounding the Rift Valley.
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The East Africans did not fall into the habit of running to the tops of mountains and back down because their understanding of exercise science suggested that it would stimulate the right set of physiological adaptations to maximize their race performance. They did it for the same reason Sir Edmund Hillary famously gave for summiting Everest: because it was there. Mountain peaks exert a magnetic pull on athletes. It is impossible to imagine a culture of runners existing in a mountainous environment and not making mountain runs a staple of their training. No physiological rationale is needed. Running up and down the mountain just feels like a natural thing to do if you’re a serious runner who’s trying to improve and there’s a mountain nearby.
It’s interesting that the two reasons Haile Gebrselassie gave me for favoring his mountain run above all others are both psychological. The first is that the workout is hard. The pain and suffering of climbing the mountain prepare him for the pain and suffering of racing. The second is that the workout builds confidence. It is not possible to build confidence as a runner without also improving your performance capacity. So it’s sensible to do whatever gives you the most confidence in training, trusting that performance will follow. That’s what Haile does.
Of course, running up and down a mountain does in fact stimulate certain beneficial physiological adaptations. It’s really two workouts in one. The first half, going up, develops leg strength and generally trains the aerobic system at a higher intensity than a flat run of equal duration does. We automatically work a little harder, minute for minute, when we go against gravity. The second half of the workout, going down, subjects the lower extremities to repeated high impact forces, and thereby increases their capacity to withstand such forces. For the marathoner this translates as less chance of bonking in the late miles due to accumulated muscle damage or loss of elasticity in the legs.
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East African runners typically do mountain runs once a week or so during periods of focused preparation for races. The idea is to run hard on the way up and take it relatively easy on the way down—you’ll get the durability benefits of going down the mountain regardless of your pace. When you do your mountain runs, note your time for the ascent and try to improve it as you progress toward race day. You don’t have to better your mark every time, and you should not go out of your way to do so on days when you don’t feel strong. But when you feel good, go for it. That’s how you maximize the confidence boost of the workout.
The details of the workout depend entirely on the topography of the mountains and hills in your area. Work with what you have. If the only “mountain” near you is a glorified hummock, you may need to go up and down it a few times to get the workout you need. If you live at the base of Mt. McKinley, you’ll probably want to stop short of the summit. The point is to give your body a challenge that’s about equivalent to your toughest long runs.
Unless you race on mountains, you’ll probably want to phase out your mountain runs a few weeks before your biggest race and replace them with long runs on terrain that is more race-specific. But you’ll get more out of those peak long runs by having preceded them with a bunch of long runs thanks to their… “Pain. Breathing too much. Struggling too much.”
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.