TRAINING: The Hill Session in Review

As part of finalising my Level 2 Fell and Mountain Running Coach qualification, I must conduct self-reflective reviews of at least 6 sessions. So far I have done 2 running drill sessions at the track in Irishtown. Today I finally moved into the mountain for my first "true" hill session and what better place to describe it and review it than this ever-reflective blog!
I had 5 signed up for this with a further 10 or so people set to join in the coming weeks. In the end, only 2 joined me today, so I hope the others didn't miss us at Taylor's.
While 8-12 is optimal for the training session I have in mind, we continued unabated.
The theme of my session was Uphill Form or in layman's words: Learning how to run uphill
properly. This is something I've struggled grimly with myself in recent years but I had other reasons for choosing it as the first focus of these Saturday hill sessions: Uphill running is the easiest form of running because most of the classical mistakes you make in your running style cannot be made while running uphill (overstriding, too long strides particularly). In downhill running you can get away with a number of mistakes much easier (in the short term).
Session - In Overview
I use the basic session format that we were taught in England:
  • Warm-up
  • Technical
  • Fitness/Strength
  • Competitive
  • Cooldown

As warm-up we did one quick lap from the carpark of Ticknock up the tarmac to the big rocks which lead down the technical descent back to the carpark. Then we ran to the flat tarmac behind the trees to perform a range of active dynamics (specific to uphill movements such as butt-kicks, zombie walk, high knees and skipping) and standing dynamics. We finished our warm-up with a set of three looseners (rotational exercises that serve to loosen the ankles, knees and hips).


We then went into a technical introduction where the basic components of an efficient uphill stride were discussed and an exercise performed to showcase. For instance, in effective running your leg lands below or just behind your body not in front of it. We performed run-on-the-spot to get into the feel of this before trying it with your feet landing in front of us. Not a pretty sight! Similar drills were done to showcase the other constituents: High knees, dorsiflexed feet, and quick strides. The "high knee walk" is a particularly favourite of mine because it prepares your legs to perform exercise at full range of motion while showcasing the difficulties of high knee movements at the same time. I also demonstrated the difference between "pushing off with your calves" (bad) and "lifting with your glutes, quad and hamstrings" (good). The athletes confirmed to me that they tended to get sore calves from hill running. Once you learn how to lift yourself of the ground rather than pushing, this will be a problem of the past.

Thus instructed, we jogged up towards Three-Rock, taking the rocky trail towards Kilmashogue midway up. In a nice flat stretch with a beautiful view of sunny Dublin, I set up a row of 8 cones to perform the final technical exercise: Quick feet and coordination by hurdling through the cones. The athletes started slowly and the speed of the drill was then increased as they got more comfortable. As we went along, I used a mixture of coaching and self-coaching to allow the athletes to make proper adjustments and clear the cones with better form and faster. Typical improvements that I saw as we went along was better use of the arms for rhythm, better coordination, and better ability to clear the cones while keeping proper form. For example, when you clear cones quickly, its natural to run on your toes like a sprinter. To practice keeping your foot dorsiflexed (pointing your toes towards your shins) and lifting your knees up high and quick.


We jogged on further to a designated climb on the Wicklow Way with nice even surface and suitable gradient to perform the meat of the session: The Fitness and Strength element. For the beginning sessions the focus is on strength over fitness which means performing drills that are short enough not to trigger use of the anaerobic energy system but instead allow the athlete to rely solely on the strength of his legs.

To practice good uphill running, I had decided to break down the desired movements into bits: First a normal uphill jog to observe the athlete's in their normal running form. After some feedback, the next test was uphill skipping with focus on driving the knee high. To simplify this further, a drill focused on running uphill with small steps but performing a high knees drill. Next then was focus on a quick stride, meaning running uphill with as quick cadence as possible. We finished off by uphill runs focusing on keeping the foot dorsiflexed on lift-off as well as giving the runners a chance to run up as fast as they could focusing on nothing else.

This I found worked very well, for every one or two run throughs, we stopped for a few seconds and discussed the good and the bad and tips were given to improve form. Both myself and the athletes noticed really good improvements overall. For a more difficult session, uphill bounding is a perfect way to put it altogether but as these are early days, we did not perform that drill today. For a more strength-based drill, more powerful uphill plyometrics can be used, but once again, these are early days and a gradual approach is imperative in my mind.

Most sessions don't include a competitive element but I think its a fun way to cap off a good session. Time trials are obviously good ways of doing this but today I was looking for something a bit easier and more "harmless" (e.g. not as taxing on the athletes).
My choice fell on a steeper section of the hill were I measured out a 60m uphill sprint. At the blow of a whistle I asked the two competitors to sprint up the hill as fast as they could focusing on racing each other and putting together all of the things they have learned today in order to do so effectively. Watching the two runners burst uphill was very satisfying, not only did their form look convincing and strong: Technically there were very few flaws. I was positively surprised to see how introducing a competitive edge allows an athlete to really focus and utilise learnings to powerful effect. Alas, many lessons will have to be repeated again in the following week or be lost, adapting new running techniques takes time and patience.
The idea behind having only a 60m sprint is not to have the athletes utilise the anaerobic system but instead stay in the alactic (creatine) system. Exercising in this system trains leg speed and muscle strength very well without incurring the stress of anaerobic training and works better in the early stages of training. We talked about how it had felt after, and the runners told me that real tiredness only set in on the final few metres. Timing had been good, a few more metres and acidosis would have started to creep in.
Uphil sprinting of this sort, with plenty of recovery, will form part of some of my later training sessions once proper form has been comprehensively established.
We decided to run back over Three-Rock's top as it was such a glorious day and take the scenic route down the Boneshaker (not an option with a bigger group obviously) before finishing off with some static stretching in the car park.
Overall, I am very happy with today's session. Its a pity more didn't show up, but with the statements of interest I have gotten I'm positive this will take off and gather momentum. I found the session had a good flow, I enjoyed the interaction and astute observations of the athletes, and it was my feeling we all had fun performing the varying exercises.
Although I did not participate fully, I felt just demonstrating the drills loosened up my legs nicely. The trainees, if I have done the job properly, will be a little less lucky and should have sore glutes, hamstrings and quads tomorrow. You don't need a gym to build strong legs. A good hill is much closer to the real deal.
We went a bit over time, the total session took around 120 minutes instead of the planned 90 minutes. We took our time with discussion and a longer cooldown, however, so timing only needs a bit of polishing off.
Breaking down the uphill running into drills focusing on one element worked better than I had hoped and is an approach I will expand even further. From today's evidence it has great potential as a learning tool and will eventually allow trainee's to perform beautiful uphill bounding, fast hill reps and other compound drills.
The competitive element has been the part I have had the most doubts about but looking at today's uphill sprint it served as the icing on the cake for the session and I'll keep this part. From my own feeling and observing the athletes, the warmup and cooldowns seemed to do a very good job of warming up and stretching the correct muscle groups making the subsequent session easier, safer, and higher quality.
The Future
The next 4-5 sessions will focus further on uphill form, expanding the difficulty bit by bit but essentially touching the same area. Next session in two weeks will be much the same as today to allow the majority of people who have expressed an interest to join in from the start. In general I'll try and make the sessions easy to "jump onboard in" midway.
I've got many more exciting plans however: Uphill time trials every 4 weeks to measure progress (I've got a nice 400m climb in mind), interesting group fartleks and similar games, "real" Lydiard Hill Sessions, and, of course, we will eventually enter the broad world of conditioning for downhill running and adapting to different types of terrain.
My Sources
Apart from the course in England I draw on the experience of the many good coaches I have seen in action: Lindie Naughton, the Kerry-man whose name I forget (from the Kerry Weekend 2008), our coaches Don, Michael and Susan at Crusaders, Catherina McKiernan (after being on her ChiRunning course in 2007), Emma Cutts from the PeakCentre, the fitness instructors I worked with in 2001-2005, our HPO Gerry Brady, Jason Kehoe's hockey team sessions, my many physios (special mention to John from the Carysfort Clinic) my old floorball coach Helge, and the tutors Graeme and Bashir from the fell-running course. (and endless runner's I've discussed this topic with over the last years, rest assured there'll rarely be a comment forgotten).
In addition, there's obviously a plethora of books, mainly those by Noakes, Fitzgerald and Lydiard, but also Kevin Shevels great TrailGuides series which I am looking forward to using particularly for inspiration for the Technical Terrain Trainings. The Evolution Running DVD also served as a great tool for seeing proper running form demonstrated "live".
So stay tuned, hope more of you will join me on the hill. I promise it will be enjoyable and worthwhile, and remember its collective learning, everyone brings something to the table, so the more the merrier.


RoyMcC said…
Good stuff Rene, it's good that you're sharing what you've learnt (and have discovered for yourself) with others. And it's a great feeling to see people improve under instruction.

I'm trying more and more to use the lift-off (rather than push-off) in my regular running and I feel that it might be paying dividends. I'll leave the hill running to you loonies though - I've just recovered from that try-out at Howth last year!

What is a 'zombie walk'?
Renny said…
Thanks Roy, hope all is well down South!

Zombie-walk is a dynamic stretch for the hamstrings where you walk with your arms stretched out in front of you (like a Zombie) and try to kick your right palm with your right leg (whilst trying to keep it straight) and then your left palm with your left foot, all the whilst walking forward.

I usually do some easy leg-swings before as it can be moderately difficult with cold hamstrings. People can insert groans as they see fit for dramatic effect.