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Conquering hilly running course starts with correct mental approach

Brom Hoban

Running hills well is as much a mental exercise as it is physical.

There's a killer scene in the 1986 movie "On the Edge " where 44-year-old Wes Holman (actor Bruce Dern) is running a hilly trail race. His coach advises him to "soar" going uphill and "burn" going downhill.

Pretty much the opposite of what you'd expect. Yet this unconventional advice makes sense, when you think about it.

By floating up the hills and digging deep on the downhills, Holman reverses the psychology of the race, using the challenging nature of the course to gain an advantage.

There's no doubt about it. There is a significant psychological component to running hills. We know they're good for us in training, yet we fear them in racing. The length and grade of hills on any given race course determine how difficult the course is, so the fear factor is understandable. But with the right approach, you can make those hills work for you.

Start by not thinking about how long or steep the hill is. Instead, think about how well prepared you are. All of your hard training is paying off now. Lock into a pace and "run through" the hill, keeping your momentum even as you crest it.

A good trick to get you through the really tough segments is to focus on downhill ahead. This is especially true for this weekend's Decker Challenge Half Marathon, one of the hilliest races in Austin. You're either climbing up or dropping down long slopes the entire 13.1 miles.

From a physical standpoint, proper hill running form is important. Experts agree that a slight forward lean is advised when running uphill or downhill. This does not mean bending at the waist, but rather from the ankles on up through the hips, torso and head, keeping aligned from the ground up.

When going uphill, forget about pace and instead focus on holding a steady perceived effort. You'll tend to pump the arms harder, which is good because it helps drive you forward. To climb efficiently, you should chop down your stride a bit and increase your turnover. Combined with the slight forward lean, this will help you get the best mechanical advantage on gravity.

When most runners hit the big downhills, the tendency is to lean back a bit, and break each stride with a heavy heel strike. This is counter-productive. Instead, running expert and bestselling author Jeff Galloway suggests that you "lean slightly forward. Let gravity do the work. Gradually let the pace increase as gravity allows, and keep your feet low to the ground with a light touch."

Finally, know your strengths and capitalize on them. For example, if you know that you're naturally a good climber, don't worry about the uphills. Instead, focus on mastering the downhills. Soar on your way up and burn on your way down!

Note: Keith Pierce won the Thundercloud Turkey Trot Five Miler last Thursday in 24:54, beating Scott Kimbell's 26:13. In the women's race, Lennie Waite beat Desiree Ficker 28:14 to 28:50.