Running five miles might be easy for you—trotting along at a measured clip, your heart pulsing at an expected rate, your steps even and identical. But take that five miles and weave it up and down an impossibly steep mountain and suddenly that seemingly simple distance becomes insurmountable. Spartan course planners frequently treat racers to some of the steepest, scariest inclines in the world, and if you’re not prepared you might have to tap out.
“The beauty of obstacle racing is that it exposes your weakest link,” says Jeff Godin Ph.D., CSCS, Spartan’s head of fitness education. “Lack upper body strength? You’ll pay for it on the 12-foot wall. Lack balance? You’ll pay for it on the balance beam. Lack hill-climbing endurance? You will pay for it all day long.”
Hills place an entirely different stress on the body as compared to the flat. “The change in slope puts the foot into severe dorsiflexion, stressing the gastrocnemius, soleus, and plantar fascia,” says Godin. “The trunk also leans forward, placing more stress on the hamstrings and back extensors. A couple of small hills won’t negatively impact these muscle groups, but in the longer events where there is 3,000 to 5,000 feet of climbing, there can be major damage to these muscles, especially in athletes who have not prepared on hills.”
If a hill is not very steep and you choose to run it, make your strides shorter and the cadence quicker. For steeper hills, it’s better to power-hike or even walk using a steady, measured pace. “Let the size of the stride be determined your level of fitness,” says Godin. “A good hiker can take larger steps that require more energy and higher energy output. A less fit or strong individual should take smaller steps.”
Also remember to use your arms to help propel you upward. “Keep your torso as upright as possible and swing your arms from hip to nip,” says Godin. “Avoid crossing the body.”
Running downhill seems conceptually easier, but it actually takes a lot of concentration and control. “No matter how much we think we are ‘letting go’ down a hill, there is a natural braking action by the lower leg and quadriceps,” says Godin. “These eccentric braking contractions are a big cause of post-exercise soreness. If your muscles aren’t prepared it will result in premature muscle soreness, decreased power output, and fatigue.”
When running downhill, lean forward from your hip, use your arms for balance, take small steps and land flat-footed. “Avoid heel striking when possible, but on a steep decline you might not be able to help it,” says Godin.
Your Training Plan
Find a hill or several hills of varying inclines, and train on them several times per week. No hills in your area? A set of stadium stairs, a treadmill with an incline feature, even a parking garage will do in a pinch. Perform hill intervals in which you sprint or power walk up then walk down.
“This boosts maximal oxygen consumption, increases your tolerance to acidosis, and improves your ability to utilize fat as a fuel,” says Godin. “Hill sprints suck as bad as burpees, probably even more so, but if you embrace the hill training your body will thank you at your next Super or Beast.”
In addition to hill training, Godin recommends strength work in the gym to develop uphill speed and power. “I would use a complex approach—a strength move followed by a plyometric exercise in a superset format,” says Godin. To develop a better tolerance for the downhill runs, he advises performing deceleration moves, such as box jump-downs and tempo squats.
Use this strength routine recommended by Godin to improve your hill climbing prowess.
__Uphill Drills __
3 X 8+ 8 Weighted Walking Lunges + Power Skips, 25 yards
3 X 8+8 Weighted Step-Ups + Ladder Drill
3 X 8 Weighted Heel Raise + Plyo Dot Drill
3 X 6 Tempo Squats (5 seconds down, one second up) + 25 yards Heel Walk
3 X 6 Squat Jump and Stick + 25 yards Toe Walk
3 X 8 Long Jump and Stick + Seated Toe Lifts
Tips for Race Day
No matter how diligently and steadily you train, the inclination on race days is to charge up the hills. But this is a huge energy suck because you have to propel yourself forward and upward against gravity. “This expenditure can be up to 40 percent more than running on the flat, and could result in glycogen depletion and a subsequent bonk,” says Godin. “The best solution is to adjust the pace or speed so the energy expenditure remains the same.”
Yes, this might mean walking rather than running, but when faced with a mountain, it’s best to check your ego at the start. “Last year I watched a guy sprint up a hill then stop to rest, then sprint, then stop,” says Godin. “My group kept a slow and steady pace and eventually got far enough ahead that we never saw him again.”
Need more training motivation? Download the Bodyweight Workout Plan