On Heart Rates and Hills!

ElevationI remember learning to ride a bike, and one of the things that stands out in my mind was how much easier it seemed when going uphill. I had something to push against and that made me feel like I was in control, going downhill was a lot easier on the legs but it really made me feel unstable. It might be for this reason that I found an affinity for hills when I started running. That and my own egotistical sense of smug superiority in storming up a hill passing all comers. I have however recently learnt the folly of this attitude, not that I don’t like feeling smug, who doesn’t? It’s just that if you really want to get a good time over an undulating course the strategy wont pay off.

It seemed to me that if I could power up a hill maintaining my pace while others slowed down I would have an advantage, so I always tried for a consistency. I noticed that a friend who ran very similar times to me on track seemed to always be ahead when it came to running in the ‘wild’. I could pass them and get a bit of a lead going up a hill, but invariably they would pass me when coming down, and then to make matters worse would seem to have much more left in the tank by the end of a route. The longer the race the more they would bank and pull away, by the end of a 10mile race they could be 3-5 minutes ahead. As you can imagine all of this was most annoying and I did not really understand what was going on.

Then came the day when I first strapped a heart rate monitor on while I went running.Garmin-heart-rate-monitor

The idea of HR training is to keep your heart rate within a particular zone while doing long training runs. It helps you assess the amount of effort you put into your training and so is a slightly more accurate way of helping to ensure you don’t train your easy sessions hard and your hard sessions easy. On a long endurance training run I am not supposed to let my HR go above 145 BPM. This involves running very slowly indeed, to put it in perspective my Parkrun pace seems to be about 7:45 a mile at the moment, my first ‘long’ run with the monitor was 6 miles and my pace averaged 11:30ish. That is almost 4 minutes a mile slower keeping my heart rate in the training zone it needed to be, and I thought running 10:30 was uncomfortably slow. So to get back to the hills thing. This particular route I ran has one very steep but not desperately long uphill section, and a longer more gradual descent a couple of miles further on.

The first time I hit the climb I tried to maintain my pace as I always did and within about 15 strides my heart rate had shot way over the zone I was working to. I slowed down, and my
heart rate kept climbing. I slowed even further looking like a shambling zombie and the rate stabilised, but it was still too high, and the shuffle I found myself doing was possibly not even as fast as a walk, so I walked the rest of the incline. My heart rate dipped under the threshold and I looked at my Garmin, I was pacing at about 17 minutes a mile. This was quite possibly the slowest I had ever ‘run’. The stretch I was on is short, maybe 200 metres, so even at the crawl I was doing, I got to the top fairly quickly and resumed my plod. After a couple more miles I reached the longer down hill stretch, and again tried to No_shamekeep to a steady pace. This time my heart rate dropped like a stone and I found that to keep it going I needed to speed up. By the time I reached the bottom I was pacing at about 9:30 and that felt good, satisfyingly like running.

The moral of this tale. While running hills is a good way to show off, time and energy wise it is a waste. The amount of energy that you burn going up a hill is far outweighed by the amount of pace and distance you can cover on a downwards incline. With the added bonus that you still leave reserves of energy to call upon later. Walking, or at least slowing down to more comfortable effort is a sound strategy to employ on hills when running for time and a tactic I will certainly be making more use of.

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