Recently, I’ve restarted my Crusaders Hill Sessions by employing Arthur Lydiard’s famous “Hill Circuits” (sometimes called "Hill Drills”). Many of his Olympians considered these circuits the most important part of their training phase and Lasse Viren is known to have been so fond of them that he would do them up until the last week before his Olympic triumphs.
Hill Circuits require you have a reasonable degree of aerobic fitness both to be able to execute them effectively and to have built enough connective tissue strength and bone density to physically deal with them. I advocate 2-3 sessions per week with at least an easier aerobic day in between for a four week period. However, Arthur’s boys did it as much as six times a week for six weeks total. He reduced the amount of sessions based on the observations that today’s runners are just not as strong or tough as they used to be.
I have been able to do my Hill Circuits in many different locations (Marlay Park, Clarabeg at home, and Kilmashogue) and the session ends up with much the same quality which speaks to its flexibility. Don’t get overly hung up with the format as long as the overall principles of the session are adhered to.
The Kilmashogue venue will be of most interest to most of the hill runners, so here goes the details.
Kilmashogue Hill Circuit
Our session starts at the Kilmashogue car park with a 1.2km jog to the start of the first Hill Circuit. The start is easily identified: It’s the Wicklow Way marker just on the bend when the first major climb of the WW starts. The road winds up sharp right here and then back left. The old road that continued straight is now blocked by a grassy barricade, so you can’t really go wrong.
From here you perform the exaggerated uphill running (or later the more complex bounding and springing exercises) until the next Wicklow Way marker. After this there’s a flatter stretch (although Niall Heffernan laconically remarked “only a hill runner would call this flat”, as I described it) where you continue for just over 200m to the next Wicklow Way marker. You turn here and continue to jog back until you have returned to the previous Wicklow Way marker. This is when you put the boot down and stride down the hill Usain Bolt style. I’ve personally managed it in 58 seconds at my best so far and hope knock more from it today. It certainly is good fun although road runners or injured runners may want to jog back to the start as this part of the session is the most risky.
You let yourself flow straight out on the gravel at the bottom and jog to the grassy barricade were you turn round and jog down back towards Kilmashogue car park. When you hit the next Wicklow Way man marker you turn back and jog to the start of the climb. As you pass by the Wicklow Way marker there, you start your next ascent. An ascent takes around eight to ten minutes depending on fitness and the difficulty of the exercises you do (e.g. bounding and springing are slower than exaggerated uphill running).
It’s best to calculate 35 minutes for your first session which works out as about four laps. You can then slowly increase to the full hour but I recommend my guideline to stop when “you could do another, but would prefer not to”. Caution is especially important the first time as the session incurs significant muscle damage (that’s the point) and you may be surprisingly sore the next day until you’re used to it (or not, I personally am not particularly sore after, but I also did 6 weeks of reasonably high aerobic mileage, often on hills, to prepare my body for the session).
This is the next point: Timing. If you want to get the best out of the session, I recommend you use it as it was traditionally intended: The bridge between the marathon conditioning period (long aerobic runs) and the anaerobic conditioning period (track work). However, it replaces a strength session and is plyometric in nature so can certainly be used much longer (as Peko Vasala did).
My Own Experience
I used the circuit at Kilmashogue for two of my sessions (the two final ones). In both cases I employed a combination of exaggerated hill running with bounding on the flatter sections on 3 out of 4 laps. I also inserted two quick 50m sprints on the flat recovery at the bottom during the third run-through of the circuit.
Between the two sessions my times already improved markedly both on the ups and the downs (on the ups, however, time is not really important; form is the main thing to work the muscles properly). It’s useful to measure time on the down to as a marker when you refine your style by each run through. You’ll be looking for small things to make you faster, and will experiment with stride length and stride frequency as the gradient changes.
On the final hill session, I got some good speed into my legs doing the downhill bit at 2:35min/km pace on each of the four laps. This equated to running around 1.2km at this pace. Imagine putting this sort of pace into one consecutive kilometre in the final stages of a hill race. I think if you can do this in training there’s a very real chance you can replicate it in a race. Biomechanically the speed is there, endurance has been built, and strength has been achieved so now all those factors just need to be brought together with anaerobic buffers before coordination follows. Once that happens, a unison of forces can be achieved and the full potential of the athlete realised.