Hannah Irwin talks us through her favourite type of winter session

They’re like marmite; you either love them or you hate them, except, even if you love them, you still slightly hate them deep inside. Whether you do them slowly or as fast possible, they also still somehow cut deep and hurt all the same.

That being said, they provide the base for one of the best winter sessions there is to help you get strong, fit and running fast, all at the same time.

If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m talking about hills, and I LOVE them. Bizarrely, I love lots of reps. I don’t get bored and I am a creature of habit, so my favourite session has to be a short tempo followed by 3 sets of 7 hills (roughly 50 seconds long). The long “boring” sessions are my favourite!

Why are hills so great?

No matter what distance you race over, hills can be an effective training session for all athletes. I find, even when I feel in great shape, the hurt is still very much real. If anyone can complete a hill session without feeling dead at the end, they definitely aren’t doing it properly!

They’re painful, but so satisfying, and, however fast or hard I run on the flat, nothing compares to that burning feeling I get in my legs 3/4 of the way up a steep hill.

The fact that you can’t complete a hill session without getting ‘jelly legs’, is why I love them, because I know my body has gone to the limit. I love the feeling of running on the flat after hills – because I feel like I’m flying. This is why hills are great for getting faster!

If I can push myself against the resistance of a hill, hopefully, when I return to the road or track and give the same effort, there may be a PB in sight.

Natural conditioning

Hill sessions are great as they combine running and S&C in one. They are a fantastic way of building strength, as the hill acts as a natural form of resistance. I don’t have a fancy treadmill with lots of different settings, so instead, I head to my nearest hill and nature does it for me!

Hill training strengthens everything from my calves, quads and hamstrings, to the all-important glutes, hip flexors and even my mind. Whilst the gyms are shut, there’s no excuse for losing strength. Hill reps are essentially the most running specific “gym” session there is.

Mixed benefit

I also mix hills up to get different physiological and psychological benefits.

Sometimes I do short 10-15 second hill bursts to work on my power and speed, and other times I do 60-90 second hills to work on my endurance. Whether I’m running fast or slow, the resistance of the hill remains the same, so I’m guaranteed a hard (painful) session.

I also tell myself, if I’m doing the full length of a hill as opposed to time, the hill doesn’t get shorter, so, the slower I go, the longer the pain goes on for. This makes me run faster! Sometimes I get adventurous and spice up the terrain I do hill sessions on.

For softer cross-country type hills, I head off-road and sometimes spike up, but when they become too slippery, I go on the road to work on my full body drive without the worry of ending up flat on my face!

Getting specific

The last reason why hill training is great, is for cross-country. Whilst the 2020 season may be non-existent, this doesn’t mean there won’t be cross races to prepare for next year.

If I am going to race in the mud and up hills, I need to train for it. Ultimately, a cross country race without mud and hills, isn’t a true British course (take Parliament Hill for example), so I want to be prepared for some brutal conditions.

A year round session. On the hills on the XC course in Falesia. Photo: Tom Craggs

Why do I love hills?

I think it’s the challenge I enjoy. I love having something other than myself to work against. Don’t get me wrong, I love all sessions and enjoy pushing myself, but there is something about working against an unrelenting hill that just makes me feel great. The faster you go, the quicker you get to the top, but the pain remains the same.

With hills, it’s a case of being brave and not shying away from the hill. It isn’t going to move, so I have to be confident and just “get over it”- literally. If I approach the bottom of the hill and doubt myself, I’m not going to make it disappear, I’m only going to make the journey up it harder, physically and mentally.

Thus, it’s the challenge of believing in myself and approaching a hill with confidence that I enjoy. It is more than just a physical challenge, it’s a mental one, and I like that.

Finally, like I said earlier, I love it when you get to the top of the hill and your legs feel like jelly; a feeling that just can’t be echoed to the same extent in any other session. Sometimes it kicks in pretty quickly, other times it’s nearer the end of the session, but it always hits.

Getting it done

Top three tips for tackling hills.

1) Don’t approach a 1-minute hill rep like you would 1 minute on the flat. I’ve learnt from this mistake. A minute of running up hill is actually pretty long, especially when you start too hard!

2) Drive with your arms and maintain good posture. Use your arms and all your body to help power up the hill. If you crunch over and allow your form to become sloppy, you’ll make yourself heavier going up the hill and also risk tripping.

3) Be positive and confident. It’s just a hill, you can get up it!

One of my favourite places for a hill session is The Chantries in Guildford. It’s tough and brutal and never fails to push me. It’s off road without being slippery and pretty damn steep! There’s hills of different lengths and steepness’s, so it always has what I need. On the odd occasion I’ve felt brave enough, I’ve also gone to St. Martha’s Church nearby and done reps on the SAND!

Whether you love them or dread them, hills are a staple part of winter training, so it’s easier to embrace and enjoy them, they aren’t going anywhere.

Please note: The pain/hurt I am referring to in this article is that when you are pushing your body to the limit when running, NOT excruciating pain caused by injury or illness.

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