TRAINING: “Hill” Week

Although formal hill training (with focus on strength and stamina development) only commences from week 11 onwards in my program, tomorrow points my journey back to the mountains for a spell. A special feature of my modification of the Go2Lydiard programs for part of full-time mountain runners is the addition of some “hill weeks” after the initial flat conditioning is done.

Today saw me complete my fifth week of aerobic training (meaning 35 days of quality running done since my year commenced on the 2nd of January) and during all this time my hilliest runs have been the two long runs including Clara Vale.

This is purposeful: The aim is to build up a good foundation of aerobic conditioning, strength, and injury-resistance before subjecting your body to the rigours of severe up and downhill running.

I based the execution of the idea on the anecdotal advice of Kenny Stuart (“More than 3-4 hill runs per week and it impacted my speed”) and John Lenihan (who seemed to have done only two hill runs per week). Everyone’s different but staying on the minimum (two) seemed both the cautious option, the best suited for “part-timer hill runners” such as myself, and could be fitted into the Go2Lydiard program the easiest without unbalancing it.

Time of Year

At this time of year it made most sense to have the hill runs during Saturdays and Sundays. Because my program starts on Sundays and finishes on Saturdays, it is easier to do this and still avoid having two hill runs back-to-back.

The key criteria was to introduce the hills without being overly detrimental to the quality of the rest of the week’s running and the ten weeks of aerobic training in general.

To achieve this, I decided to have only two “hill weeks” during the ten, week six and week eight, finishing off strongly, and with maximum mileage, in weeks nine and ten before the actual hill phase commences in week eleven.

What session would give the most return and fit the program best? I went for simplicity: Replace the Sunday long run with a long hill run and replace the “Out and Back” session with and “Up & Down”.

Balancing it out

Because the long hill run is harder than a standard long run and the “Up & Down” inflicts more muscle damage than the “Out and Back” I had to consider how to balance this. My advice is to choose the “Shortest” option for the first of the two mid-week long runs and dose down the pace of the aerobic run on the Monday.

Together this makes the week a bit of a “periodisation week”, meaning that you will run lower mileage than in the previous weeks (because of the hills and the shortened distance/reduced speed of two sessions). This should allow me to absorb the hill stimulus, catch somewhat of a break, and be ready to blow better the performances of week five in week seven when “flat running” commences.

Up & Down

The “Up & Down” workout was inspired by the requirements needed to succeed in long one-peak races, uphill-only trials and the international mountain races (such as the European Championships and Snowdon).

Similar to “Out and Back”, you have to put in your strongest aerobic effort, really working both legs and heart without yet straying into anaerobic territory. The difference is that you are running up a long steep incline (length depends on your training level and program). I have several courses tailored for this purpose, for instance:

  • Camaderry Uphill (8km ascent from the Glendalough Visitor’s Centre with 630m climb)
  • Mullacor Uphill from Glendalough Visitor’s Centre (about 9k ascent with 763m climb)
  • Scarr ascent from St. Kevin’s Way (9.3km ascent with 742m climb)

Other obvious candidates are, of course, the classical mountain races such as Lugnacoille, Carrauntoohil, and Brandon, but these tend to be more difficult to access on a regular basis unless you’re John Lenihan. Another consideration is that you should be running the entire uphill so pick a gradient and terrain that will allow you to do this without going heavily anaerobic or being forced to walk. Then progress it from there.

Long Hill Run

There’s nothing new about a long hill run and most mountain runners do them regularly. They are simply long runs (preferably two hours and beyond once you are able) over tougher climbs and usually rougher terrain than your regular long runs.

The implications are likewise straightforward: More stress on muscles and potentially less on the heart. If you legs tire early, you can’t keep the pressure up on the heart because your legs slow you down too much or you end up walking some parts of very steep climbs.

Likewise, the downhills can turn into a purely technical exercise with little exertion on legs and heart, so its important to keep up a decent effort here and work on your technical skills if you use very rough routes were the terrain might see you jogging down.

For instance, my first long aerobic hill run this morning was a simple run out the Wicklow Way from Glendalough to Ballinafunshoge and back again. The route features 786m climb compared to the 588m I did when looping around Earl’s Drive (but here the terrain was much faster) or the 457m on my Laragh to Clara Vale loop. Where it really stands out is the rougher terrain and the 150m climb on kilometre five. Of course, I don’t mind a bit of work when there’s only 20km to go!

Brockagh Finish

On the way back I came down the Brockagh race route. I never understood the criticism of this section rather I think it’s the true test of the race. When you come off the descent at full tilt suddenly the flat ground forces you to carry your own weight.

To succeed here you need a complete athlete physically primed with solid endurance to carry his legs over the finish line without any gravity to assist them. The Brockagh descent is one of the easiest around and I remember well the lesson taught in my maiden season of 2007. Having overplayed my hand to catch Justin Rea on the descent, I blew up on the flat bit and got caught helplessly by Ruiri Finucane. I never forgot this lesson and it served me right too, having gone faster than my system would take. Looking at yesterday’s cross-country its important that such tactical blunders are punished so the runner can develop their racing smarts before they are thrown on the really big stage.


During “hill week” I simply have to throw mileage and pace comparisons out the window as they become meaningless. While the long hill run was the longest run of the year in terms of duration, it was only the fourth longest in terms of miles. Was it the hardest? Absolutely, the most painful, miserable and inconsistent run of the year and the storm winds blowing over Paddock Hill were no help, just as my ankles constant complains on the uphill vindicates my decision to only be a “part-time hill-runner” this year.

It also had the lowest heart rate of the year and despite tired legs from my strong Out and Back the day before, soreness has not been particularly bad, perhaps because I spend the rest of the day walking around the ALSAA fields watching the Intermediate Cross-Country. More on that and the successful week 5 next week…