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John Harvard's Journal

How to Handle Hills

November-December 2006

Tracks are fairly level, but cross-country running demands mastery of hills, which offer a natural form of interval trainingalternating intense work with recovery periods. Running downhill is one of Lindsey Scherfs strong points: she has passed plenty of runners on descents. You have got to lean into it and stay quick on your feet, not breaking up your stride, she explains. Just let your feet goquick, quick, quick! Running downhill is controlled falling. Controlled is the key word. Many runners tend to overstride on downhills, and begin striking the ground with their heelsThats putting on the brakes a bit, Scherf saysinstead of the midfoot, which is more efficient.

Climbing hills, Scherf likes to increase her stride frequency and decrease its length. Shell drive her knees and pump her arms and, as always, strive to be quick. She wants to get up on her toes and minimize time spent with her foot contacting the groundrunning is a kind of one-footed bounding. Scherf, who trains with plyometrics (drills that involve springing and bounding to build quickness), claims that elite runners generally have a turnover rate (stride frequency) of 180 to 200 strides per minute. But a marathoner has a shorter stride than an 800-meter runner, she explains: marathoners push off the ground less forcefully, because they must run at an effort level that they can maintain for 26 miles.

The best way to gain time on a cross-country course, she says, is to accelerate as you are cresting the hill and use that momentum to carry you into the downhill piece. A lot of people tend to ease up at the crest of a hill; after running hard uphill, you want to rest. The athlete who actually speeds up at the hilltop will often leave her competitors in the dust.