The Best Training Session for Running and CyclingDonovan van Gelder
In this day and age where coaches and athletes are all trying find the best value for training time, it is often the case that we overcomplicate things. In my humble opinion, and I don’t think I am alone, simply running or riding up and down a hill, more than a few times, should be the staple session in everyone’s season.
Hill reps are not only a great, sport-specific, training session but working against gravity and a higher load than we are used to on a flatter road has considerable cardio-vascular and biomechanical benefits as well. For running, the impact on our joints is a lot lighter than a track session for example, reducing the risk of injury while pushing the body to its limits.
Short Hills Reps – Short is a relative term and obviously differs in distance between running and cycling. In running we can perform hill reps on an incline as short as 200m. On the bike, on less steep gradients, a short rep would be considered around 400m. Anything shorter would be covered too quickly and there would be too much time taken up by turning around at each end. If we are performing more powerful efforts on a steeper climb on the bike, they can be as short as 200m, where we would perform a sprint from bottom to top. This is more a road-cyclist session than one for triathletes, but we may find that we need to work on our explosivity if we are taking part in draft-legal events. In this situation it would be better to find a short circuit around our chosen 200m climb, so that we can spend some time easy pedalling and recovering between each effort, without having the hassle of dead-turns. Freewheeling on the brakes during recovery after an explosive effort is also not ideal for the muscles, which will tighten up considerably before having to perform another full-gas effort.
More controlled short hill reps on the bike are better done on a hill that is not too steep. One where we can stay in the saddle the whole way up, after the initial getting up to speed. Here we can concentrate on smooth, circular pedalling and keeping our bodies still to give our legs a good platform to push off. These are good workouts for developing torque and using a higher gear / lower cadence than we would normally do, in order to really make the strength gains that we are looking for. The short duration of the repetition suits that kind of effort and will place less strain on ligaments and tendons than pedalling at low cadences for long periods. A nice idea is to alternate, one climb at a low cadence and one pedalling faster than normal. Combining the two opposite ends of the pedalling spectrum is an excellent way to develop good pedalling mechanics. Two areas of the pedal stroke where we want to really concentrate is the ‘push over the top’ and the ‘wiping of the foot’ at the bottom. The downward part of the pedal stroke is the most natural and should not need any attention. The back of the stroke is also not a big contributor to our total power, and it is difficult to get much out of it without potentially hurting ourselves. Out of the saddle we can get more out of the back of the pedal stroke by pulling our legs up and forwards with our hip-flexors. In the saddle we are focusing on a C more than an O when pedalling.
On the run, short hill reps are excellent for focusing on perfect technique, posture and overall running form. To get the most out of these we need the gradient to not be too steep. More what is considered a ‘false flat’ than a hill at 3-4% gradient. We want to drive ourselves forwards, almost like sprinters, getting maximum extension through the hips and thrust from the glutes at the back of the stride before the push off. We want good, positive, snappy arm movements, which will initiate the same from the legs. We don’t want to over-stride and reach too far forwards with our feet. So, a high knee lift is not something to focus on. Just a good, positive drive through of the ‘recovering’ leg (to borrow a term from swimming), with the foot still making contact with the ground below our centre of gravity. Remembering that this will seem slightly behind the normal position because we are leaning into an incline. That lean should be in a linear fashion as if there was a straight line drawn up from our ankles, through our hips, spine and neck, to the top of the head. We don’t want to be looking down at our feet, or too far ahead. About 3-4 metres ahead on the road should have our heads in a nice, neutral position. Our chests are out and shoulders back, in a proud posture.
Steeper inclines can be used for running short hill reps but there is the potential negative of how these impact our body position and technique. Hills that are very steep make it exceedingly difficult to hold good posture. I suggest only running steep hill reps if an event that we are preparing for has these sorts of gradients on the route. That will more than likely be an off-road trail run event as tar roads rarely exceed gradients in double figures on the run in a triathlon. Again, like the terms short and long, steepness is relative to each athlete’s level of conditioning and experience. As long as we are able to hold good form while performing our full set of hill reps, the hill is not too steep for us.
Longer hill reps for cycling are only limited by our geography and level of fitness and experience. There is not much point to spending hours and hours doing hill reps though, and the session should not exceed an hour, excluding warm up and cool down periods. Doing the maths on that would result in the conclusion that a hill rep of more than 15 minutes is probably the maximum a cyclist should perform. 3-4 of those with half the time to get back to the start will be as much as needs to be completed in this kind of focused, strength session. There are as many options for long hill reps as there are for free-riding on a hilly route.
- Time trial efforts – Where we hold a steady pace throughout. To ensure good pacing, the first rep should be at a more controlled effort and then and attempt should be made to go slightly faster for each subsequent effort. This will have the added benefit of teaching good pace and effort judgement.
- Building efforts – Starting at an easy effort and progressively getting harder as we climb. Keep in mind that our heart rate will gradually rise through the repetition, even if we maintain a steady pace. So, this kind of effort is best controlled with a powermeter, gradually adding watts through the rep. A more difficult but great skill to develop is to do this using perceived effort. A nice option is to alternate one, using the powermeter and the next using only RPE and then comparing the results in the post session analysis.
- Changes of pace – We can add in short accelerations from time to time to disrupt our climbing rhythm. This has the converse effect of actually teaching us good rhythm because we have to fight to return to it every time. These efforts can also be varied from rep to rep. For example: Every 40 seconds in the 1st rep; every 30 seconds in the 2nd and so on.
Longer hill reps for running can be up to 2km but the best approach is to limit hill reps to no more than a five-minute duration. For most this will not be more than a kilometre. When running, we can’t freewheel at great speed back down the hill like we can on the bike. Our recovery times are always going to be longer than the interval. Making the hill too long exacerbates that problem. If we are fortunate enough to have a really long, gradual hill on which to do our hill rep session it can prove to be very useful for these strength sessions. Instead of running from the bottom to the top in every interval, we can time our intervals and recoveries, as we would in a track or fartlek session. Running up the hill for a predetermined time before turning and jogging back down for another set time before again, turning and doing another rep. This will result in us gradually going higher and higher up the climb but, if it is long enough, it can be a very strictly controlled and effective strength session. If our hill is long enough, we offered other variations like doing pyramids or ladders where each successive interval gets longer or shorter. All components that add to the session and help to make it more physically and mentally stimulating.
In running hill reps, we can vary the session in all the ways that we do on the bike except for alternating standing and seated climbing. One other good variation for running can be performed on a convex hill, one where the hill’s gradient gradually tapers off in the last few metres. This is especially useful for running repetitions because it will allow us to stretch out our stride at the end of the interval and accelerate across the finish each time. Continuing to focus on pulling through with the hamstrings and driving off with the glutes as we were doing on the steeper gradients, will give a great sensation of power and speed on the shallower incline at the end and provide fantastic sensory cues that will benefit our running technique and form in the long term.