When I begin the lead-in training to each new season, our new and even some of our older pro athletes start to question why they're running every 2nd or 3rd session up hills and why their early-season track workouts have morphed into a series of 15, 30 and 45 seconds hill reps.
Firstly, while my love of hill running is often viewed as eccentric within triathlon circles, hill work is nothing that hasn't already been used very effectively by some of the great coaches and runners in history.
The late great Percy 'Mad as a Hatter' Cerutty loved nothing more than finding a sand dune and running everyone he could find up it to exhaustion. That included the world record holder over 1500m.
A key source of inspiration for hill running comes from another great, if somewhat temperamental coach, Arthur Lydiard from New Zealand. Lydiard used hills in all his preparations from 400m sprinters to marathoners. The coach of one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all time, Peter Snell, used to shun track work all season until the race phase – and even then, used the track sparingly. During track workouts, he wouldn't list a set of numbers, but instead allow his athletes to 'sharpen the knife', which he believed had been 'forged with strong hill work'. Arthur's other speciality was semi-hill bounding with reps up to 600 metres straight.
Yes, but these guys are old school and from a different era.
Kenyan runners have long known the value of hill workouts.
So, let's consider the current era where we also see successful runners using hills. Extensively. Have a closer look at the first generation of Kenyan run teams and what they did in their 6-week altitude training camps before descending down the mountains to dominate. A lot of hilly runs (rolling hills) plus two times a week of hill reps.
How far were they and at what gradient?
Well Mike Kosgei (early 90s Kenyan head coach) was also a new-age scientific guy: He'd drive the witches’ hats to one of three 'hills' depending on the view he wanted to see that day and then drop them at different lengths based on his 'mood'. 200 metres if he was happy, or he might drive 3 minutes in the truck ('but it's a slow truck') if he was punishing them for an indiscretion. Steepness? No idea, but on one of the hills 'you can nearly touch the ground with your hand'.
Similarly, Moses Tanui, one of the greatest runners of all time with Championships in every distance from 5km through to the marathon, didn't mind a bit of hill work. He also ran his hill sessions as 'God wants it' and didn't rely on splits or stopwatches. When he was poor and not famous there was one hill set that he didn't like so much because it was hard to get a lift back down to the village. After he started winning, he had a luxury of employing a local boy to drive his truck to pick him up. The set was 22km long (started at 1,000m altitude and finished at 2,700m). So quite easy to see why the early days were tough.
Moses Tanui the first man to run under an hour for the half marathon
Now my pro and age-group athletes, who do nowhere near the same amount of volume nor intensity in their own training would do well to remember these examples as they are completing one of Sutto's 'long-hill' runs.
I know you can't accurately measure your speed. I know you can't accurately measure your distance. But I promise you this: By running in the footsteps of giants you will get a hell of a lot faster. You can bet on it.