At Cal Poly, where I went to college, the motto is “Learn by Doing.” As in, the best way to learn how to do something…is to do it. And call me brainwashed, but I 100% believe in this.
Say I’m playing piano. I want to learn something like Beethoven’s 5th. But all I do is practice scales and play “Do Re Mi” over and over. Will I ever be able to play Beethoven? Not until I start playing it.
Running’s the same way. I want to break 1:45 in the half marathon. That means running at about an 8-minute/mile pace for 13.1 miles. If all I do while training is run 5-7 miles at a time at an 8:30 pace, will I break 1:45? Nope. Not unless I regularly push either the length or speed of my workouts.
If you’ve been running for longer than, say, a week, you already know this. To run faster, you have to practice running faster. So…how do you do that?
I have two personal favorite strategies, and one is:
Yes, hills suck. But in that weirdo-runner-masochistic way, I freaking love them. I consider myself lucky I’ve always lived in cities/neighborhoods that are just naturally hilly, so I don’t really have to seek out hills or inclines for workouts (though I occasionally still do, from time to time). I get to train on hills (inclines and declines!) on approximately 90% of my runs. And when I race, I can feel the difference (and see it when I easily pass people going up).
This is a good overview of why hills are good for you (plus some starter workouts): How to Learn to Love Hills
In high school, there was a 4.5-mile road that went up in the foothills. We ran that thing every Monday — not the whole way (varsity did that once or twice a season), but most of the team would go up to the “hairpin turn,” which was 2.8 miles up. From there we could cut over to a trail that winded its way down.
Then, when it came to the league finals course that had a KILLER hill in the last mile, we all absolutely kicked ass, because most of the other schools couldn’t replicate our hill training (unless they trained on our “turf,” which one team did at least once and we got all kinds of mad) (not really, it was all good fun).
In college, there were several hills all over and near campus, but one street in particular that peaked in the middle — I’d run up one side, down the other, and back up and over a couple times in the middle of a run. And despite running verrrrry sporadically throughout college, I managed to maintain a decent level of fitness.
Now, I don’t go out of my way to run hills much — I let the trails in Balboa and Mission Gorge and honestly, the roads around my apartment take care of me. But when I’m looking to absolutely die, I go to Texas Street as it comes out of Mission Valley. From Camino Del Rio South to Madison Street, it’s about 0.4 miles UP UP UP.
I’ve done repeats up that (I usually call uncle after 2 or 3). I’ve also done something I call “Progressive Texas,” which is where I start at the bottom and run to the first light post, then back down. Then to the second light post, and back down. Then to the third, and so on.
There are 14 light posts total. I’ve never actually made it to all 14; I think my “record” is 10. And the “best” part is that at the end, I get to run alllll the way up.
The thing about running hills is you can basically throw pace out the window. Unlike doing speedwork on the track, where you’re completely ruled by splits, when you’re doing hills, you can go solely based on effort — run easy on a long hill, or run at a hard effort for a certain amount of time or distance. Sprint up something short and steep, over and over. It will hurt. You will hate yourself a little. But good God, you will get stronger and faster. Promise.
And while you’re at it, practice running downhill. Because, unless you’re on a point-to-point course, what goes up…must come down. In my experience (which, it should be noted, is completely non-expert), the best way to do this is to find a short-ish, grassy slope. Nothing too steep or crazy. Grass offers softer impact, both on your feet and body if you fall. Most people’s instinct when running downhill is to lean back, which is essentially putting on the brakes. Try to overcome this — mimic the same stance you’d have on flat ground: hips over feet, slight lean forward from your pelvis. You’ll almost feel like you’re falling forward with each step. I wouldn’t recommend this EVERY time you run down a hill, because you will absolutely thrash your quads, but if you’re training for a race with a lot of downhills…well, go back to the top of this post. Learn by doing!
It should go without saying that I’m not a doctor, running expert, or anything resembling anyone with authority. Think of me simply as that friend in your running club, or persistent co-worker trying to get you to lace up a pair of shoes, offering some friendly advice. Nothing more.
Scrubs screencap from here