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Racing the hills

Approaching and conquering hills during a race is dependent on several factors: the remaining distance of the race, the length and steepness of the hill, and your own physical condition. Here’s some guidance on how to take on hills on the day of the race.

In training, you’ve tackled hill intervals and repeats. As a Mindful Runner, you’ve practiced large strides during these sessions. However, this is not the strategy you’ll employ for anything but the briefest of hills during a race. Generally, you want to utilize the natural springiness of your body, focusing the energy generation on your feet, Achilles, and calves, which are smaller, highly elastic, and fatigue-resistant muscles and tendons. When tackling uphill, if your calves start to burn, adjust your muscle usage slightly by dropping your heels until the discomfort dissipates, then resume.

Use short, quick steps to avoid enlisting your larger muscles. On trails, select a path with minimal step-ups to maintain these short strides, but this step consideration is less vital on roads where strides are more consistent.

For steeper or longer hills where walking becomes necessary, devise a manageable run-walk strategy. A technique on roads is using roadside poles to regulate your pacing, like running for two poles and walking for two. Other methods include using your breaths or steps as markers. The key is not to run until exhaustion; initiate the walk phase before that point. Keep an active approach, continually seeking opportunities to run and maintain control over the hill, not the other way around.

Maintain a positive mindset. Consider the hill as a mentor aiding your improvement or an adversary you’re keen to conquer. Alternatively, adopt a Mindful Runner approach, accepting the hill’s challenge as it is. Stay present, breathe, and continue moving forward.

There are other mental strategies like taking an external viewpoint: count your steps or use mantras like “Onward and upward” or “I’m a lean mean hill climbing machine”. Internal strategies can be focusing on your breathing, engaging with your muscles, and visualising their work.

As you approach a hill you can see the top of, develop a run-walk plan. For longer hills, which you would have assessed during your race planning and training, stay as close as possible to your original plan, but be prepared to adjust if needed. During training, build a mental catalogue of slopes and hills. This can be a useful reference when deciding whether to run or walk an unfamiliar hill during a race.

The key to hills is tackling them with awareness and a plan. Take the initiative and don’t let the hills dictate your race.

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